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Tuesday morning Obama unveiled the latest stage in his reinvention campaign: A Wall Street Journal article announcing “a government-wide review of the rules already on the books to remove outdated regulations that stifle job creation and make our economy less competitive.”
Hiring Wall Street and Clinton administration veteran William Daley as chief of staff, compromising with Republicans to extend Bush-era tax rates, and taking a measured response to the Tucson tragedy, President Obama has left commentators speculating that he will moderate his approach.
Dick Morris, architect of Bill Clinton’s post-’94 political rebound, believes the Tucson speech “signaled a real attempt to move to the center.” With co-writer Eileen McGann, he asks: “Will he be able to triangulate? Can he win in 2012 by moving to the center? A president always has the option of correcting his mistakes, reversing his positions, and governing the country by moving it in the right direct[ion]. And those kinds of presidents—like Bill Clinton—usually get themselves re-elected.”
Analyses such as Morris’s assume that the president, as political scientist David Mayhew once described Members of Congress, is just another of those “single-minded seekers of reelection.” But evidence, such as his pig-headed approach to health-care reform, suggests he sees himself as a transformative figure. The fundamental difference between Bill Clinton and Barack Obama is that the former is a politician; the latter, an ideologue. An agenda, not polls, primarily motivates the ideologue.
Bill Clinton’s move to the center could not have surprised anyone familiar with his political career. As the youngest governor in America, Bill Clinton alienated the Arkansas electorate by raising taxes and surrounding himself with outsiders, both geographically and culturally, from his constituents. After losing his reelection bid in 1980, Clinton regained his position in 1982 by recasting himself as a centrist.
A nearly identical scenario played out during his first presidential term. Offending the electorate through an aggressive push for gays in the military, bureaucratization of health care, and a ban on “assault” weapons, Clinton’s party, to borrow a word from President Obama, took a shellacking in the 1994 mid-term elections. Similarly, Obama pushed an unpopular health-care bill through Congress and a massive “stimulus” plan that further depressed the economy. The voters responded in November by awarding Republicans 63 additional House seats, six new Senate seats, and a half dozen more governorships.
But there’s where the similarities are likely to end. Though 2010 appeared as a déjà vu of 1994, it doesn’t follow that Obama will learn the same lessons that his Democratic presidential predecessor did.
Clinton’s move to the center was prefaced not only by a similar shift as governor, but was anticipated by genuinely centrist legislation championed during his first year as president. Clinton’s most substantial legislative legacy, the North America Free Trade Agreement, passed during his first year in office mainly because of Republican support.
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