Commentary Magazine


What Would Bill Clinton Say?

Bill McGurn looks back on Bill Clinton’s presidency (as many of us have done of late) with some enhanced appreciation:

Yet for all his undeniable weaknesses, Mr. Clinton does seem to understand something that eludes Mr. Obama: In a center-right nation, a liberal doesn’t want to get too far ahead of the voters. At times (and HillaryCare was one) Mr. Clinton got himself too far out in front—but when he had, he’d generally been careful to respond by scurrying back to the center and appropriating his opponents’ most appealing messages.

As McGurn notes, Clinton showed some contrition in his State of the Union address following his party’s 1994 midterm election wipeout and began his migration to the center of the political spectrum. Alas, Obama is no Bill Clinton. McGurn observes that Obama, unlike Clinton, seems unaware of the country’s Center-Right orientation and so far evidences none of Clinton’s wily ability to adjust to new political circumstances. Moreover, Obama’s arrogance in the wake of defeat is increasingly off-putting:

His team argues, apparently oblivious to the inherent condescension, that no intelligent American could possibly oppose his health-care agenda on substance. It’s all just a big misunderstanding, says the White House. We just need to explain it better—like recasting a second stimulus as a “jobs bill,” selling health-care reform as “deficit reduction,” and throwing in a lot of speech references to the “middle class.”

It’s foreign territory for Obama, to be sure. He’s never experienced real political defeat or a personal rebuke of this magnitude. He’s lived a charmed political life by dint of his rhetoric and persona, neither of which is wearing well. He’s never much deviated from statist, liberal ideology and now seems frustrated that the voters don’t appreciate all that the Obama administration is trying to do for them. You can see why he’s testy, defensive, and mulling over whether one term might be enough.

He’s also increasingly isolated. The Left is fed up. After all, he’s delivered none of the items on their wish list — nationalized health care, repeal of don’t-ask-don’t tell, closing of Guantanamo, withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan, and cap-and-trade. His Supreme Court pick was neither wise nor has proved to be of any use in the essential task of luring Justice Kennedy to their side (at least not yet). While the Left might have nowhere to go in a presidential election, they may well stay home in 2010, adding to Democrats’ woes. (“The unrest among liberals comes at a perilous political time. Party strategists worry that anger on the left could depress turnout in this year’s midterm elections and cost the party congressional seats and state governorships. The most recent Wall Street Journal/NBC survey found 55% of Republicans ‘very interested’ in the November elections, compared with 38% of Democrats.”)

The Right, of course, has him on the run and sees him as a less-than-competent, rigid ideologue. Meanwhile, Independents are running at breakneck speed away from the Democratic camp. Again, it’s hard to know where he should start in rebuilding a base of support.

As we have come to expect, Obama now seems inclined to offer more spin than substance. On tap is some fake populist rhetoric mixed in with a spending “freeze” on a sliver of the federal budget, which reportedly excludes “the military, veterans, homeland security and international affairs … [and] big entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare.” He’ll claim he’s not giving up on ObamaCare and let Reid and Pelosi worry about the details later. (He always lets them worry about the details later, which is part of the problem, of course.) But the fundamental issues remain: unemployment is high, the economy is fragile, he’s worn out his welcome, he lacks any significant first-year legislative accomplishment, his approach to national security is proving to be a flop, and he’s revealed himself to be an ultra-leftist who lacks the common touch.

Still, he’s president for the next three years, and he might as well make something of it. Some humility, a robust defense of America’s role in the world, and some pro-growth initiatives (why not a moratorium on tax hikes?) would be a start. It would be Clinton-esque if he could pull it off.