For all the “future” talk in last night’s State of the Union address, President Obama seemed to have drawn a lot of inspiration from the past.
While the defining phrase of the speech, “Winning the Future,” was the title of a 2005 book by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, the content of the speech echoed the theme of former President Bill Clinton’s reelection campaign.
After defeat in the 1994 midterm elections curtailed his ambitious legislative agenda, Clinton famously pivoted, acknowledging the public’s desire to rein in government while positioning himself as the protector of the social safety net from the Gingrich Republicans who wanted to rip it to shreds. In the 1996 campaign, this morphed into the vaguely defined “Bridge to the 21st Century.”
Obama, facing a similar set of political circumstances, now looks to be replicating the winning Clinton model as he gears up for his own reelection effort.
In both cases, the presidents were addressing a nation that had become skeptical of big government, and thus they tried to frame their expansionary policies in a way that tapped into Americans’ patriotism and romance with the future.
“So tonight, let us resolve to build that bridge to the 21st century, to meet our challenges and protect our values,” Clinton said in his acceptance speech at the 1996 Democratic National Convention.
In his State of the Union address last night, Obama said, “So over the last two years, we’ve begun rebuilding for the 21st century, a project that has meant thousands of good jobs for the hard-hit construction industry. And tonight, I’m proposing that we redouble those efforts.”
In the Clinton-Obama framework, government needs to be cut, yes, but only in a humane way that doesn’t inhibit progress.
“(L)et us proclaim to the American people we will balance the budget, and let us also proclaim we will do it in a way that preserves Medicare, Medicaid, education, the environment, the integrity of our pensions, the strength of our people,” Clinton said in his acceptance speech at the 1996 Democratic National Convention. “I want to balance the budget with real cuts in government and waste. I want a plan that invests in education as mine does, in technology and yes, in research.”
In his State of the Union speech, Obama reiterated his call for freezing discretionary spending without endorsing specific reforms to entitlement programs, and in the process he delivered a warning that sounded eerily reminiscent of Clinton’s.
“I recognize that some in this chamber have already proposed deeper cuts, and I’m willing to eliminate whatever we can honestly afford to do without,” Obama said. “But let’s make sure that we’re not doing it on the backs of our most vulnerable citizens. Cutting the deficit by gutting our investments in innovation and education is like lightening an overloaded airplane by removing its engine. It may make you feel like you’re flying high at first, but it won’t take long before you feel the impact.”
Last night, Obama spoke of a renewed commitment to education. “To compete, higher education must be within the reach of every American,” he said. “That’s why we’ve ended the unwarranted taxpayer subsidies that went to banks, and used the savings to make college affordable for millions of students. And this year, I ask Congress to go further, and make permanent our tuition tax credit — worth $10,000 for four years of college.”
Back in 1996, Clinton said, “By the year 2000 the single most critical thing we can do is to give every single American who wants it the chance to go to college. We must make two years of college just as universal in four years as a high school education is today. And we can do it. We can do it and we should cut taxes to do it. I propose a $1,500 a year tuition tax credit for Americans, a Hope Scholarship for the first two years of college to make the typical community college education available to every American. I believe every working family ought also to be able to deduct up to $10,000 in college tuition costs per year for education after that.”
Clinton wanted “every single library and classroom in America connected to the information superhighway by the year 2000” and to make sure that “every 12-year-old will be able to log in on the Internet…” Last night, Obama predicted that, “Within the next five years, we’ll make it possible for businesses to deploy the next generation of high-speed wireless coverage to 98 percent of all Americans.”
Just as Clinton took credit for welfare reform that was largely forced upon him by the new GOP majority, Obama declared early in his speech that, “Thanks to the tax cuts we passed, Americans’ paychecks are a little bigger today.”
Obama may be the beneficiary of a weak GOP field in 2012 no matter what strategy he employs, but there are several reasons why Obama is in a tougher position than Clinton.
Ironically, Clinton benefitted from the fact that his legislative priorities were largely stymied during his first two years in office, allowing him to later distance himself from a transformational liberal social agenda. By contrast, Obama was very successful legislatively, and the implementation of his policies — most notably, the national health care law — will continue to remind voters that he’s a big government liberal.
Also, it was easier to postpone action on entitlements back in the 1990s, but now our debt is much steeper, the economy is much weaker, and the day of reckoning is quickly approaching with Baby Boomers retiring. As Rep. Paul Ryan put it in his response to Obama’s speech, “What was a fiscal challenge is now a fiscal crisis.”
Back in 1996, Clinton observed, “(W)e do not need to build a bridge to the past. We need to build a bridge to the future.”
Last night, Obama explained that, “We can’t win the future with a government of the past.”
The question facing Obama is whether he can win reelection with a campaign from the past.