By Doyle McManus
We got a good long look at the second-term edition of Barack Obama last week, and he’s sounding more like Bill Clinton every day.
It’s not all that surprising. Over the last two years, Obama has turned repeatedly to Clinton for counsel. And Obama was a target of Clinton’s advice even before he asked for it. In a 2011 book and a series of public appearances, the former president laid out a polite but biting critique of Obama’s first-term stumbles. Warning No. 1, coming from the man who proclaimed (in his 1996 State of the Union message) that “the era of big government is over,” was that Obama shouldn’t fall into the trap of defending big government. Sure enough, in Obama’s State of the Union speech last week, we heard this: “It’s not a bigger government we need, but a smarter government.”
Obama’s rhetoric still aims high; he hasn’t given up all hope of transforming American politics. But his concrete proposals these days are smaller and more Clintonian, a necessary adjustment in the face of entrenched Republican opposition.
In his State of the Union address, Obama promised to revive manufacturing jobs, but the major details turned out to be modest: long-proposed tax changes to make “offshoring” more expensive and $1 billion to create “innovation institutes.” He called for universal preschool education, but the programs he offered turned out to be not quite universal and mostly aimed at spurring states to act. In a sense, we’re seeing the third version of the Obama presidency. Obama 1.0 was the ambitious Obama of 2009, swept into office in a landslide amid economic crisis. That expansive Obama tackled everything at once – a giant economic stimulus program, a healthcare law and financial reform – and intended to pass immigration reform and climate-change legislation too.
But that agenda turned out to be too ambitious, even with both houses of Congress in Democratic hands. Obama 2.0 tried to draw lessons from those setbacks.
So, by the end of 2011, we began to see Obama 3.0: a more confrontational president bent on reestablishing a popular mandate for his core policies, beginning with tax hikes on the wealthy. That Obama turned out to be pretty skilled at his job, winning convincingly in November. Does the president really expect to win a $9 minimum wage, universal preschool education and a ban on assault weapons despite the GOP-held House? No. But those are proposals that please not only confirmed Democrats but many swing voters as well. Provoking Republicans into opposing them helps Obama cast the GOP as a party of cranky conservatives – another tactic at which Clinton excelled. There’s an irony, of course, in the echoes of Bill Clinton that turn up in Obama’s strategy today. In the race for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008, Obama not only ran against Hillary Clinton; he dismissed her husband’s tenure in the White House as unimpressive.
But Obama 3.0 is a more practical man. Bill Clinton’s second term wasn’t an unqualified success; he spent much of his tenure battling personal scandals and impeachment. (Somehow, Obama appears unlikely to follow that pattern.) But Clinton left office with a solid list of accomplishments, high popularity and a healthy economy. That kind of legacy is another thing Obama would like to emulate.
Doyle McManus is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times. Readers may send him email at firstname.lastname@example.org.