Thursday, September 03, 2009

Obama and Bill Clinton

Steve Kornacki's latest observation in the Observer about President Obama's waning popularity, has a grain of truth-but only a grain; and it is important to separate the wheat from the chaff. Kornacki likens Obama's current slippage to Clinton's even greater loss of popularity-a loss that lead to the Republican revolution in 1994: "Pardon me for not getting too worked up about the Stunning Decline In Barack Obama’s Poll Numbers...Back then, the pundits were sounding the alarm about President Bill Clinton’s appalling poll numbers: a 44 percent approval rating, or—as every media outlet made sure to note—the worst score for a first year president since modern polling began during the Eisenhower administration."

Wild Bill did make a dramatic comeback; but not before being battered: "Clinton had introduced the budget plan in February, not long after taking office. Initially, the public reacted favorably. But marching in lockstep, Republicans relentlessly battered it as a jobs-killing enemy of economic recovery. They also screamed about the process, insisting that the White House and Congressional Democrats were force-feeding Americans a bill they didn’t need or want.The result was predictable: Week after week in the spring and summer of ’93, public support for Clinton’s budget dropped, and with it support for Clinton’s presidency."

So, how did he come back? "And then came the Republican Revolution of 1994, after which everyone agreed that Clinton would be thrashed in 1996, unless he had the good judgment to get out of the way before then. But by 1995, the public’s confidence in the economy had turned around and—not surprisingly—voters came to see their president in a new light. The seeds planted in the summer of ’93 were sprouting. (It didn’t hurt that Newt Gingrich and the Congressional Republicans badly overplayed their hand in budget negotiations, accelerating Clinton’s comeback.) The rest is history."

But, Kornacki's history is plagued by a selective memory-and if the Obama folks simply follow Steve along this garden path, they will court disaster. What is left out in this lacuna-laced lesson is the actual strategy Clinton took after the defeat of 1994. His former speech writer explains: "We were wasted with exhaustion, but Bill Clinton smiled and declared: "This could be liberating." It was nearly midnight on Election Day, Nov. 8, 1994. The president's party had just lost control of the House and Senate, hardly a time to be smiling or feeling liberated. President Clinton had too much sense to explain it out loud. But, walking with him down a White House ramp from the roof-top solarium to the family quarters, I thought I understood what he meant: The voters had given him leave from the leaders of his own party, who had pulled the president in directions -- mostly left of center -- that kept him from proving his claim to be a "different kind of Democrat."

And Clinton demonstrated this clearly to an approving electorate: "And it turned out that Clinton was spot on about the politics of it. The loss of Congress opened the way to pursue a more centrist approach, enabling him two years later to become the first Democratic president in 60 years to win a second term."

This observation is ratified by former Clinton advisor Dick Morris in his most recent column analyzing the Obama slide: "It now looks like health-care reform will cripple the Obama presidency, as it did Bill Clinton’s in 1993. Of course, Clinton was able to move to the center and secure re-election in 1996. But can a true believer like Obama do the same?"

So, Kornacki could be right, but that would depend on what the president does in response to his slippage. Anything can happen-and Obama has plenty of time to right the ship. How he tries to do this will determine the outcome.