Did the White House’s all-hands-on-deck push for the cromnibus signal a change in direction for Barack Obama in the next two years? Obama tossed the Left under the bus to get a deal last week, and Politico’s Todd Purdum says it’s a sign of things to come. But will we get the Full Clinton in triangulation? Well …
In the six years of his presidency, Obama hasn’t had to do much of that kind of compromising, nor has he been willing to. But in the wake of the GOP’s midterm rout, the president and his aides have now apparently come to the conclusion that that’s what the American public wants — and even expects.
The stakes facing the two presidents are not really comparable. Clinton — in the midst of his first term — was trying to reorient his party by upending three decades of Democratic orthodoxies concerning the social compact, while Obama — nearing the end of his second — was simply trying to avoid the threat of another round of brinkmanship over a government shutdown by passing what — in a less rancorous era — would have been a routine spending bill.
This president bent on Democratic priorities — allowing the weakening of a key provision of the financial reform bill he himself fought so hard to pass, and a big increase in individual contribution limits to political parties and their congressional campaign committees — to stave off even more unpalatable elements: cuts to Obamacare, or retribution for his recent executive actions on immigration. From the administration’s perspective, accepting this bill — warts and all — was better than risking an immediate shutdown or a 90-day continuing budget resolution that would have to be relitigated in the far more unstable circumstances of a larger House GOP majority and a Republican Senate.
Obama’s presumed intention is to live to fight another day. And if he has any hope of avoiding complete marginalization in his last two years in office, that’s just what he’ll have to do — if only by using his veto pen — in the new year.
It’s not as complicated as Purdum appears to think. The reasons why Obama never tried Clinton-style triangulation fall along two lines — different situations and fundamentally different politicians. Clinton was a people pleaser who sincerely wanted to govern. His political DNA derived from the Democratic Leadership Council, which expressly wanted the so-called Third Way to create a path between Left and Right, and then claim it for the Democratic Party. Clinton succeeded at that, but it didn’t last past his own presidency, thanks to Al Gore’s seeming repudiation of Clinton in 2000 in favor of a lean to the Left again.
Democrats still claim to represent the center, but that hasn’t been true for years. The party nominated John Kerry in 2004 and then Obama in 2008, who managed to combine a theatrical style with Bush fatigue and tilt the electorate more to the Left than it had previously been. Ever since his election, Obama has pursued the hobby-horse agenda of the party’s progressive wing, first with health care and then with Wall Street regulation on Dodd-Frank, as well as blowing up the budgeting process and the bottom lines it has produced.
Obama got away with it for six years because he had one advantage that Clinton didn’t: a friendly Senate. Clinton had to go head-to-head with Congress, but Obama could dodge those fights by having Harry Reid run interference for him. Dozens of bills designed to accelerate economic recovery through open-market principles died in the Senate, while Reid shredded the upper chamber’s traditions to become a kind of legislative dictator.
That fig leaf is gone now, and Obama has to deal with a Congress fully in control of the opposition with only two years left in his political career. Presidents want to focus on legacies in their final quarter, and Obama will be no different. He has two years to fix the budgeting process broken by Reid and his party, and to find some legislative achievement since his last one in the summer of 2010. His bragging scorecard is remarkably empty for a two-term President, and no one should know that better than Obama. If he’s going to make an impact on history now, he’ll have to partner with Republicans rather than progressives, who have become utterly marginalized over the last three election cycles.
Will he, though? That’s clearly what Obama did last week, but from what we’ve seen of his personality over the last six years, it seems unsustainable. It gets back to the difference in political DNA. Clinton wanted to govern and find solutions. Obama mainly wants to posture and make himself the issue, which is exactly what he did with his immigration stunt last month. Can anyone imagine Obama doing the schmoozing necessary with John Boehner and Mitch McConnell on a consistent basis to make a Clintonian triangulation strategy work? I can’t.