Ever since the GOP won the House of Representatives a year ago, one historical analogy has fixated the media: Bill Clinton’s response to the Republican revolution of 1994. Time and again, pundits have asked: Will Barack Obama triangulate, as Clinton allegedly did, or will he tack left, thus reaffirming his desire to be the transformational liberal that Clinton never was?
Back in January, when President Obama named Bill Daley to be his chief of staff, the press thought it had the answer. A month earlier, Obama had agreed to extend the Bush-era tax cuts for another two years. Now he was putting White House operations in the hands of Daley, a vice chairman of JPMorgan Chase who had masterminded the passage of NAFTA in 1993. As former Republican House Speaker Denny Hastert told the Los Angeles Times, Daley “understands the things that can bring [Obama] more toward the middle, exactly as Bill Clinton did.”
That was then. Now, with last week’s news that Daley is being stripped of his power—and Obama’s recent embrace of a minimum tax on millionaires—the storyline has turned. Suddenly, Obama is the anti-Clinton once again.
But by demoting Daley and tacking left—after first hiring him and tacking right—Obama isn’t burning Clinton’s playbook; he’s following it. Indeed, Clinton responded to the GOP congressional takeover with exactly the same zigzag. For much of 1995, Clinton put political strategy in the hands of the amorally centrist Dick Morris, and under his influence embraced Newt Gingrich’s goal of a rapid move toward a balanced budget. But all this was just a precursor to the shift Clinton made in late 1995, when he drew a line in the sand against Republican efforts to cut government. His refusal to accept large cuts in Medicare and education spending spawned a government shutdown, which strengthened Clinton politically by illustrating the necessity of the very federal government that Republicans kept demonizing. Everyone remembers that in the 1996 State of the Union address that followed the shutdown fight, Clinton said, “The era of big government is over.” But he followed that line with “We cannot go back to the time when our citizens were left to fend for themselves.” And in an even more stinging attack on Gingrich’s agenda, he singled out a Social Security Administration worker who had rescued three people during the Oklahoma City terrorist attack and noted that as a result of the government shutdown, the man had been forced to work without pay.
As the pollster Stanley Greenberg has noted, it was only during the government-shutdown battle that Clinton’s poll numbers began to rise. And that fight set the template for his 1996 campaign against Republican nominee Bob Dole, whom Clinton painted as a Gingrich lackey who would eviscerate popular government spending. On Election Day, Clinton voters were twice as likely to cite his defense of Medicare, education, and the environment as they were to mention his centrist positions on welfare, deficit reduction, and crime.
It’s far from clear that Clinton’s two-step will work for Obama. The economy is far weaker today than it was when Clinton sought a second term; Mitt Romney (assuming he’s the nominee) will likely be a more vigorous and disciplined campaigner than was Bob Dole, and John Boehner has not become the national villain that Gingrich was a decade and a half ago.
Still, by demoting Daley and building his reelection campaign around the case for government action—in this case to produce jobs—Obama is reaffirming a core political truth: Government protections for the middle class aren’t only popular among liberals; they are popular, period, as the voters of Ohio showed this week by repealing a collective-bargaining law that bars public-sector strikes. Democrats can lose presidential elections if they seem fiscally reckless or culturally left-wing. But they only win presidential elections when they effectively make the case for government. As the presidential campaign begins in earnest, that’s what Obama is beginning to do. Bill Clinton would be proud.