That Was Then, This is Obama

A friend asked me what I thought about this:  

"… I'm wondering if there's a parallel between the elder Bush in 1992 and Obama in 2012.

In 1992 the Dems pounded Bush for capitulating on the tax issue (in retrospect, perhaps a mistake) in order to win the campaign and traded in a mostly-moderate Republican for a moderate/Right Democrat who still brought us NAFTA and most of the same crap we would have had if Bush had stayed in office. Now the Repubs seem willing to oust a moderate Democrat who a) maintained the Bush wars b) enacted the Bob Dole health insurance without any public plan and c) agreed to sizable spending cuts and tax cut extensions. I.e.

Aside from SCOTUS appointments, is this a big political fight over fairly small shifts in actual WH policy?"


How interesting!?!


My bottom line answer is that the big political fight makes sense because the combination of small and giant shifts in White House policy has massive implications for the country.


Regarding the current parallels with 1992, I think you’re generically on to something. Bill Clinton moved substantially to the center during his campaign and after his election. Some of his pandering was shameful but may have been necessary. (It certainly seemed necessary to him at the time.) Even though he was considered centrist as part of the Democratic Leadership Council, Clinton clearly intended to govern further left than he actually did. Part of his trouble was simply that he never had a mandate. He won something like 43% of the popular vote that year, largely because Perot got something close to 20%. Then there was the healthcare debacle that pushed his polling into the toilet. Clinton seemed to be reeling from Inauguration Day on.


I think it was abundantly clear very early that Clinton would have to be consistently moderate in order to have any substantial accomplishments. I do, however, think there were some real differences between the potential second Bush term and Clinton’s actual terms. Humanitarian intervention in the Balkans is a biggie. I think Bush was so invested in realpolitik that he would have been hard pressed to justify military intervention in that situation. We didn’t ‘gain’ anything from winning that war. Also, consider that in the climate of the mid-90s making changes to social programs like welfare seemed inevitable. The difference between Clinton’s more generous construction of welfare reform and a fully Republican one is probably substantial.


There’s also the political value of incumbency, especially in the White House. Dan Quayle is now widely perceived as a political joke but after 8 years as a Vice President, he would have been a formidable candidate in 1996. It’s hard for me to imagine, but I think Dan Quayle would have been tough for the Dems to beat. 16 or 20 years of consecutive Republican Presidencies means a generational lock on the Supreme Court and the federal judiciary and who knows what else regarding energy or environmental policies, regulatory agencies and a monopoly on executive branch political expertise.


Currently, Obama gets lots of grief for not being more liberal and I understand that. I, personally, would prefer him to move substantially left. However, I still think it’s important to recognize that his administration has already created important change in a multitude of ways. Change that would not have happened were a Republican in the Oval Office. Considering the rancor the ‘Bob Dole’ health care reform package generated, it’s hard to imagine any health care reform at all happening under a Republican President. I also think the vast majority of Republican contenders would have resisted continuing and expanding the TARP program. Obama’s actions on that front will likely prove to be an incredible long term success. Obama’s even pulled us away from having permanent bases in Iraq. Considering John McCain’s suggestion that we might stay in Iraq for decades, this feels like a really big difference. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell seems an obvious example too. No GOP President would have even considered that change.


Also, when we consider how insular and politicized the Bush White House was, the Obama Administration has done a very good job of moving toward openness and collegiality. While there are miles to go in these regards, the changes are substantial. It’s almost impossible to imagine Bush having a Secretary of Defense who was a Democrat, especially one tied to another administration. Obama kept Bob Gates and it’s been a clear positive for the country. Obama appointed Jon Huntsman to be Ambassador to China, even though Huntsman’s Presidential ambitions were widely known. The Justice department is now politicized in a way that makes sense to most observers; there’s been a radical shift there. After Osama bin Laden was killed, we got to see pictures of our leaders watching it unfold. That level of openness was astonishing to me. By contrast, I still have never heard where Dick Cheney’s ‘undisclosed locations’ are.  


All this is a long form way for me to think about how vastly different the country is as a result of which party controls the Presidency. Many Republicans have expressed that their most important goal is for Obama to be a one term President and to me that emphasis makes perfect sense. The President has enormous power to change America and our political system itself. In the first couple years of the Obama Administration, that change has been less overt than many of us would like but I think the changes have been real.  


I certainly don’t want to elect a Republican President next year and find out if I’m right.





4 thoughts on “That Was Then, This is Obama

  1. I am never a fan of my progressive politicians moving to the center to stay in office. That said, I have never before experienced the level of trust I have in Obama. I’m IN – Obama 2012.


  2. Interesting thoughts for sure.
    I’m not sure I’d bite on Obama being more open, and I think the Obama-hunt footage was more PR than public disclosure. was an interesting read on the openness issue, though there have been others.
    But in the bigger picture, despite the flaw in my initial post, I really was interested primarily in a slightly different question.
    The issue not being “was Clinton an upgrade over Bush?” nor even whether Democrats should be disaffected with Obama, but more, is the benefit of displacing a moderate from the opposing party ultimately worth what it costs?
    Even on the welfare issue I might disagree with you, since the Clinton White House was at least one of the factors leading to the Repub Revolution of 1994, and ultimately it was the Republican Congress who wrote the bills on welfare reform in 1996. But I digress.
    All that aside, the core of my query was the significance of the Dems piling on Bush for making a reasonable decision. Since that point, it’s become increasingly infeasible for any Republican to even publicly contemplate a tax increase, despite the fact that even Reagan (the nigh-holy one) increased taxes a few times.
    Watching the Republicans go after Obama, even on decisions where they should seemingly agree with him, keeps bringing that history to mind.
    I’m out of time, alas, but what I’m pondering, essentially, is what are the Republicans risking by trying to hamstring Obama in 2012 instead of positioning themselves for 2016?
    My sense is they keep having to move farther and farther right to distance themselves. Whereas Clinton moved the Dems so far to the center that they lost a chunk of their base, the Republicans by contrast keep moving out to a narrower and narrower slice of their base, and risk losing those at the center, either socially or economically.
    Sorry if this is a disjointed mess, I had to rush. Once again, I’ll end with a side-note that I think the two-party system will ultimately wreck this country politically.


  3. The wreck’s already happened! I am amazed the 2 party system has persisted for so long; it seems so odd and limiting. Forcing people to fit into the either/or means most politicians have to choose positions that are obviously inconsistent. My guess is that the reason both parties get away with making spectacles of themselves in the way you suggest is that there just aren’t viable alternatives outside the big 2.
    You’re certainly right that our politicians are forced to say and do silly things in order to stay party loyal even if it’s long term problematic.
    In my US History classes this semester, I showed them a NYT article that complimented the nigh-holy one (great phrase!) on being willing to raise taxes when he needed to do so. Some of my students couldn’t believe it. They’d only heard about Reagan as the great tax cutter and wondered why the stories about him are so different than the realities.
    Politics and governing are complicated and most of us just don’t have the time, energy and expertise to follow issues as much as we might like. The sound bites, red herrings and straw men that have come to define modern American politics are all calculated to push our buttons. On occasion, all the hopey changey stuff pushes lots of buttons but usually it’s the negative that animates people.
    Even though I despise that it’s come to this, I think I can understand why the practitioners of politics choose the low, stupid road so often. And when the winds shift, it’s often easier to re-write the narrative. After all, ‘We’ve always been at war with Eastasia.’ And since Mitt Romney supported global health care (or something like it), he couldn’t possibly be a real conservative.
    Sometimes I think our politicians forget that when you poison a well, all the water is tainted, not just your neighbors’.


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