Clinton Years Hold Clues for Obama

President Barack Obama may find himself more receptive to lessons learned by Bill Clinton than he has been in the past

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    NEWSLETTERS

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    President Barack Obama may find himself more receptive to lessons learned by Bill Clinton than he has been in the past.

    WWCD: What Would Clinton Do?

    That’s not a question that President Barack Obama and his team of loyalists from the 2008 campaign are prone to ask, because they don’t much care about the answer.

    It is an irony of the Obama administration — given that it is staffed with so many people with high-level experience during Bill Clinton’s presidency, including one Cabinet member named Clinton — that its basic attitude toward Clinton-style governance is hostile.

    Obama and White House aides are courteous to the 42nd president when he calls, but in private many of those aides sound very much like George W. Bush’s advisers in disparaging the Clinton years.

    The people around Obama are romantics. They dream of Obama as a transformational figure, looming large on history’s stage. They see Clinton as at best a transitional figure, whose poll-tested pragmatism and incremental policies loom small.

    But perhaps they are feeling a bit less cocky these days, after a loss in the Massachusetts Senate special election that has revealed deep problems for Democrats and, arguably, serious miscalculations in Obama’s governing strategy.

    Clinton has been there. After a Democratic disaster in the midterm elections of 1994, a shaken president recovered in time for an easy reelection in 1996. Now, with Democrats in panic, a midterm election looming and major parts of Obama’s agenda in critical condition, the current occupant of the White House might find himself more interested in the lessons Clinton learned:

    Liberate yourself from Congress

    Clinton became famous for what his political consultant Dick Morris called “triangulation,” positioning himself between liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans.

    Clinton didn’t gratuitously distance himself from Democrats. But after 1994, he did make it clear that he was more interested in being president of the United States than leader of the Democratic Party, something that previously had been unclear.

    Obama has found himself in a similar predicament. In fairness, Republicans have not exactly been falling over themselves to work with him.

    Under the Clinton formula, Obama would never surrender an aura of bipartisanship — no matter how bitterly partisan Washington becomes. Even more important, he would never want his public image tied to the reputation of his party and its congressional leaders.

    Will it make Democratic lawmakers angry if Obama stakes out his own positions and makes it clear he doesn’t care so much what they think? Yes it will. In the 1990s, many Democrats were furious with Clinton’s advocacy of welfare reform and a balanced budget.

    But Clinton learned a lesson along the way that surely applies equally to Obama: The only thing other politicians really respect is popularity and power. When Clinton’s approval ratings were high, his own party got in line. When they were low, Democrats were happy to pile on.

    Liberate yourself from staff

    The staff of a winning presidential candidate is a cult. When the candidate wins, the cult usually follows him to the West Wing. That happened with Clinton, and it has happened even more with Obama.

    But Clinton discovered he needed good advice more than he needed a cult. He came to feel boxed in by those he called “these kids who got me elected” — aides who sat for flattering media profiles and who fancied themselves the indispensable keepers of the campaign faith. 

    Clinton also discovered that he needed to be in charge of his own public image, not risk delegating it to staff members or Cabinet secretaries.

    One way Clinton came back from disaster was by clearing meetings from his daily schedule. This gave him a couple of hours a day to think and make calls to people outside the White House bubble whose judgment he trusted. And once a week, he summoned his top political and policy advisers to the White House residence to review the latest polling, fine-tune his agenda and ensure that his political and policy goals were in sync.

    In the wake of declining approval ratings, an uncertain fate for health care and an embarrassing political defeat in Massachusetts, Obama may or may not feel that his own advisers have served him well. But surely those aides have some explaining to do. The Clinton playbook is to make sure these aides never forget they are hired hands — and that the president’s reputation is more important than their own.

    Figure out how to talk about the economy

    Clinton had the same problem Obama does: differences among his own team about the right note to sound about the economy. The challenge is to inspire optimism without sounding out of touch with problems — and to speak with one voice.

    Obama does not have that down yet. On the Sunday shows last month, Obama economic adviser Larry Summers said the country is out of the recession, while Obama economic adviser Christina Romer said “of course not” when asked the same question.

    After 1994, Clinton’s team combed the latest statistics, always on the lookout for even the most obscure trends to highlight from the presidential pulpit. Clinton made sure that he — not off-message aides or Cabinet secretaries — was the person translating economic news for average Americans.

    Come up with a compelling way to talk about your ideology

    After two years in office, many people saw Clinton as a waffler who didn’t clearly stand for anything.

    Likewise, even some supporters say they aren’t sure what Obama stands for, which is a bit odd, given that he has advanced the largest and most expensive Democratic agenda in a generation. But that’s a byproduct of Obama allowing his image to be defined by the machinations of Congress and its messy compromises and tactics.

    Clinton’s response to the problem was to give a series of speeches in which he laid out in highly personal terms what he thought and why. A long and even meandering speech he gave at Georgetown University in the summer of 1995 didn’t even make much news at the time but ended up serving as a foundation for nearly every speech that followed on the role of government in American life.

    In an interview with ABC News’s George Stephanopoulos this week, Obama acknowledged that he has not done an adequate job conveying his larger vision. 

    Understand that small things can be big

    Starting in 1995, most weeks brought several events in which Clinton would issue some policy announcement, usually accompanied by an executive order — one day, new food safety regulations; the next, Education Department guidelines to combat truancy.

    People made fun of some of these — such as Clinton’s advocacy of school uniforms.

    Cumulatively, however, these small moves helped communicate Clinton’s values and spread the message that he was showing up for work every day to get something done. And none of it was dependent on whether he could persuade Congress to agree on something.

    The announcements were often harnessed to travel, allowing Clinton to escape Washington and score political points without sounding overtly partisan.

    Run to weakness

    Clinton once told me that one of his secrets was to run toward controversy and political weakness, rather than follow the natural human instinct to run away from them.

    So he traveled to New Hampshire to talk with hunters who were angry about gun control, even though his own advisers thought he was “crazier than the March Hare” to do so.

    Clinton was also willing — albeit grudgingly — to acknowledge that he had made mistakes during his rough start as president.

    This allowed independent voters who were upset with him to view his presidency through a more sympathetic narrative — that of an earnest president who was ready to learn from his mistakes — rather than to join Republicans in rooting for his failure.

    Populism with a smile

    Obama’s team has decided to strike a new populist tone with tough rhetoric against insurance companies and banks. The rhetoric is matched with new legislation meant to put new curbs on big banks, even though some members of his own economic team are uneasy about the proposal.

    This makes sense at a time when many average Americans are suffering high unemployment and people are furious at Wall Street. Arianna Huffington and others are delighted with the new tack.

    But Clinton would warn Obama to be careful. The problem with angry populist rhetoric is that it can easily sound too liberal and too much like class warfare to the ears of independent voters. It also risks alienating many people in the business and the professional classes whose social views leave them sympathetic to Obama and whose confidence is important to economic growth.

    Clinton managed to make average Americans feel that he was on their side — it was why public approval remained high even during his impeachment — without striking an angry and punitive tone.

    The 1990s are now a long time ago. Obama and Clinton are very different men. But in the wake of Massachusetts, Obama may conclude it makes sense to borrow some parts of the Clinton strategy before he knows for sure whether 2010 is another 1994.

    John F. Harris is the author of “The Survivor: Bill Clinton in the White House.”