August 17, 2009

Why Barack Obama Is No Bill Clinton, And Why the Press Will Say He Is

While running for president in 1992, Bill Clinton famously repudiated Sister Souljah's statement that we should "have a week and kill White people." This gave rise to the term "Sister Souljah moment" in which a candidate proves that he's not beholden to his base by publicly taking on an extreme member of it. It gave many people confidence in Bill Clinton's determination to govern the nation from the center: that he wasn't your typical Democratic candidate. Clinton had an ability to position himself between the extremes of the two parties and find a Third Way solution to national issues - managing to occupy the central ground while peeling off just enough moderates from each side to maintain his hold on the presidency for two terms.

He and his political advisers poll-tested every position on a daily basis, and that's why it was never possible to nail his feet to the ground ideologically: he didn't have any guiding principles other than maintaining his personal power by doing whatever was the most popular that day. If a conservative position was popular, then Clinton was for it. On issues like NAFTA and welfare reform, he co-opted Republican support and took the more conservative position. His willingness to do so is what made Clinton so dangerous to those on the opposite side of the political aisle. His occasional support on more conservative issues kept him from pigeon-holed as just another "tax and spend" liberal like the candidates which Democrats had nominated before him: Carter, Mondale and Dukakis.

But Barack Obama is no Bill Clinton. He has never taken on the most liberal elements of his party in any meaningful way. In fact the defining feature of his presidency thus far has been to allow those very people to take charge of both the stimulus and cap-and-trade as well as his signature issue, ObamaCare. Since he has yet to make any real attempt at establishing centrist - or even moderate - bona fides to date, there is no public reservoir of public good will to fall back upon in order to cushion him from potential fallout over ObamaCare. Clinton had Sister Souljah, while Obama has Henry Gates; and that tells you everything you need to know about the difference between their presidencies.

So if the reports of a public option for ObamaCare being DOA are accurate, and health care reform passes without it; won't Obama get credit for taking a Clintonian Third Way in order to pass some kind of health care reform? No doubt the press, which is deeply invested in making his presidency seem successful, will spin it that way. They will extol his wisdom in keeping the door open to eliminating the public option, and with deep satisfaction they will proclaim that he "won."

But they will be wrong, and the general public will know it. Unlike Clinton, Obama is an ideologue not a pragmatist. He, to his core, believes that the public option is the only real solution. But if what passes out of Congress doesn't include it, he will sign it anyway. Only in the fevered minds of Axelrod and Emanuel will this be an Obama victory in any sense of the word. He would be signing a bill which clearly isn't what he wanted but is for what he is being forced to settle. And therein lies the difference between him and Clinton.

Bill Clinton and his handlers got out in front of the issue of the day, looking ahead to what the "Third Way" solution to a given problem would likely look like after the sausage-grinding of the legislative process was finished, and tried to push that eventual compromise position as early in the process as possible. Even while they were working behind the scenes to move that legislation leftward, the public face of the president was always one of seeking to bring the two sides together for a bipartisan solution to a pressing problem.

Barack "I Won" Obama has done no such thing. He has sat on the sidelines while Democrats systematically excluded Republicans from having any substantial contributions to ObamaCare. He has urged to his supporters to "punch back twice as hard" when faced with opposition. He has shown exactly zero willingness to listen to any dissenting voices and has shown exactly zero leadership in attempting to craft a bipartisan compromise. His position has been to push as hard as possible, as publicly as possible, as fast as possible, to force Congress to pass the most extreme version of ObamaCare possible. And although the White House spin operation (and their media allies) will ultimately claim otherwise, to achieve anything less than this will be a failure.

Obama and his Chicago Democrats failed to learn the lessons of the 1993-94 Clinton administration which was such a miserable failure that it resulted in the Republican takeover of both Houses of Congress. From then on, Clinton never let himself get led out too far on a significant piece of legislation. He blew in the breeze of popular opinion from one issue to the next, eschewing the most vocal voices from both sides. That way, no matter what ultimately passed, Clinton was always able to claim victory.

Obama, on the other hand, has taken a position from the far Left extreme of his party and championed it - even in the face of rising public opposition. Unlike Clinton who was seen to be sitting in the center while pushing outward on both extremes, Obama is firmly entrenched on the far Left and being pulled kicking and screaming toward the center. To the extent he gets pulled unwillingly from the position he has staked out, he will be a disappointment to his ideological brethren for being weak and ineffectual. And to the extent that he is viewed as being dogmatically tied to that extremist position from which he must be dragged, he will anger (and indeed already is angering) moderates and conservatives for being a hard-core ideological Socialist.

In short, if there is no public option, then Obama will have managed to alienate - to one degree or another - almost everybody who doesn't have a personal stake in making his presidency seem successful. Liberal activists will be disappointed that, even with substantial majorities in Congress, he failed to achieve their Holy Grail of a single-payer system. And moderates and conservatives will still be angry that he attempted to foist it upon them in the first place.

Which brings us back to the press which carried his water so willingly during the 2008 campaign. They sold their souls to get him elected, and they cling to even the most tenuous claim of victory at the end of this process. So they will spin and spin and spin, claiming that his forceful advocacy of the public option was always just an attempt to get something done. Any change at all will be trumpeted as proof of Obama's political genius. And the pundits will dutifully opine that, if not for Obama, nothing would have been done at all; so he should be given credit - even if the thing that he really wanted never happens at all.

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