Commentary Magazine


Obama’s 1996 Scenario is Finished

Last year, as the Republican-controlled House of Representatives stood its ground on the debt ceiling standoff, President Obama’s strategy for 2012 became apparent. Throughout the torturous negotiations over entitlements, budgets, taxes and spending, the president issued statements about wanting a compromise, but these were a thin veil covering his obvious desire for a confrontation. Demanding new taxes that the House majority elected in 2010 had vowed never to accept, the administration more or less dared the GOP leadership to allow the country to default by refusing to raise the debt ceiling.

It was painfully obvious as the controversy lingered throughout the summer that President Obama was working from Bill Clinton’s 1995 playbook when he similarly bluffed a Republican Congress into shutting down the government over a budget standoff. Though Congress’s popularity plunged, the president was disappointed in his hopes that House Speaker John Boehner or Majority Leader Eric Cantor refused to step into the Newt Gingrich clown suits he had prepared for them. Nevertheless, the White House still hoped that lingering disgust for Congress combined with an economic recovery would allow the president to win re-election in the same manner as Clinton did. But if there was any doubt about the inapplicability of the 1996 template, this year it was removed on Friday as another dismal jobs report more or less guaranteed that a summer recovery wasn’t in the cards. The bad economic news isn’t just a setback that will give the Democrats a few shaky news cycles. It is confirmation that the president’s re-election strategy has already failed.

This realization comes through in some of the accounts of the White House’s reaction to the bleak jobs report. Though the president was undaunted during his various campaign appearances and statements, even the usually pro-Obama coverage of the New York Times could not fail to note that the hopes of the president’s staff for a 1996 rerun have been crushed. Though the Democrats are still going all-out to demonize the congressional Republicans, blaming them or George W. Bush for the poor economy is a perilously weak re-election strategy for a man running on the slogan of “Forward.”

The Democratic counter-attack to the GOP carping about jobs is to accuse the opposition of rooting for a bad economy. But that is a talking point that will work just about as well for the Democrats as the Republican effort to claim critics of the Iraq war were cheering for America to lose. The problem here is that, as the Times noted, the president seems to have no viable options to change the situation other than to whine about Republicans not passing mini-stimulus bills he claims will jump-start the economy.

As the Times notes, in 1996 with the economy booming. the Republican Congress passed legislation that aided Clinton as well as bolstered their own reputation. Democrats will brand the GOP as obstructionists for not working with the president for the common good this year, but the big difference between the two situations is that Clinton co-opted Republican positions and moved to the center as he cruised to re-election. By contrast, President Obama has run to the left this year, making it impossible for the House to embrace his proposals even if they wanted to.

The president hoped to make the election a referendum on the GOP and on Mitt Romney’s fitness for the presidency. But with a failing U.S. economy and the prospect that an even worse tailspin in Europe will drag America’s finance down even further this year, that is looking like a losing bet. Nothing is worse for an incumbent than the appearance that he is not in control of events. The president’s helplessness on the economy — an issue that is his opponent’s one great strength — is scuttling his 1996 blueprint for victory in an election in which the odds appear to be starting to turn against him.

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