Obama: Triangulation 2.0?

Immediately following the Democrats' 2010 electoral shellacking, a broad spectrum of pundits urged President Obama to "pull a Clinton," in the words of Politico: move to the center (as if he wasn't already there), find common ground with the GOP and adopt the "triangulation" strategy employed by Bill Clinton after the Democratic setback in the 1994 midterms. "Is 'triangulation' just another word for the politics of the possible?" asked the New York Times. "Can Obama do a Clinton?" seconded The Economist. And so on. The Obama administration, emphatic in charting its own course, quickly took issue with the comparison. According to the Times, Obama went so far as to ban the word "triangulation" inside the White House. Politico called the phrase "the dirtiest word in politics."

Obama's distaste for the Clinton-era buzzword seemed a tad ironic, given that he had packed the White House with insiders from the Clinton administration and began year three with prominent Clinton alums as his chief of staff (Bill Daley), top economic adviser (Gene Sperling) and budget director (Jack Lew). Obama's first legislative deal after the election, on the Bush tax cuts, included major concessions to the GOP in a highly Clintonian compromise. And there was the Big Dog himself, at the White House press podium on December 10, defending the agreement while Obama was under fire from the left, a predicament Clinton was no stranger to. One could be forgiven for believing that the Clinton era had returned. The parallels between now and then are indeed striking.

After his party's midterm rebuke in 1994, Clinton delivered a prime-time address in December of that year to pre-empt incoming House Speaker Newt Gingrich's "Contract With America" by unveiling a "Middle Class Bill of Rights" consisting mainly of tax cuts. Congressional Democrats were furious at the proposal, and noted liberal historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote that Clinton had "hoisted a white flag — and did so before a crowd that won't be satisfied by anything short of unconditional surrender." Sixteen years later, following his own midterm thumping and in an attempt to preserve the sort of tax cuts liberal Democrats once vilified Clinton for, Obama agreed to extend all of the Bush tax cuts temporarily, including those for the wealthiest Americans. The deal demonstrated how far the pendulum had swung to the right, especially in the wake of George W. Bush's tenure, and raised alarming questions about how Obama planned to govern against the backdrop of a divided Washington. If Obama continues to adopt Republican ideas, what was previously regarded as the center will shift even further to the right.

At the hopeful beginning of his presidency, Obama devoured biographies of Lincoln (Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin, Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer by Fred Kaplan) and FDR (The Defining Moment by Jonathan Alter, FDR by Jean Edward Smith), two unquestionably great presidents who put their unique stamp on history. By the end of a productive yet rough two years in office, as he departed for a much-needed vacation in Hawaii, Obama's reading list was replaced with biographies of Clinton and Reagan, presidents who stumbled in their early days and suffered bad losses in their first midterm election yet eventually regained their footing — though in markedly different ways. Clinton, for much of his presidency, shaded the difference between liberalism and conservatism in favor of a "third way," while Reagan held to an unabashedly conservative ideology on foreign and domestic policy. On the campaign trail in 2008, Obama argued that Reagan had "changed the trajectory of America...in a way that Bill Clinton did not." A few years later, however, Obama looks far more like Clinton than Reagan, a largely transactional, rather than transformational, leader (although there have been times, most recently during his mesmerizing speech at the Tucson memorial service, when Obama has powerfully risen to the occasion). The big question for years three and four of his presidency is, Which model will Obama follow?

Before dissecting Obama's strategy, it's worth remembering the moves Clinton made after the '94 election and whether they worked as popularly described. That December, Clinton summoned his old Arkansas friend Dick Morris, a shadowy and controversial political operative who'd worked for GOP senators like Jesse Helms and Trent Lott, for an urgent strategy meeting. Morris, using the code name Charlie, urged Clinton to "fast-forward the Gingrich agenda" and find a "Democratic way of achieving" GOP priorities. Heeding such advice came naturally to Clinton, who'd already cut deals with the GOP on issues like NAFTA and would continue to do so after facing a Republican Congress, most notably on welfare reform, reducing the size of the government ("The era of big government is over") and balancing the budget, while emphasizing less consequential issues, such as school uniforms and V-chips, that polled well with the electorate. Yet the half-dozen ex–Clinton advisers I interviewed for this article pointed out that Morris typically receives more credit than he deserves in the saga of Clinton's comeback, and that triangulation was less responsible for Clinton's re-election than conventional wisdom posits. "The truth is, triangulation was much more what Dick Morris said than what President Clinton did," says former Clinton adviser Paul Begala.

In fact, during his first major confrontation with the GOP Congress — over the 1995 budget — Clinton ignored Morris's advice, according to Begala, and refused to cut a deal with Gingrich, pledging to resist cuts to "Medicare, Medicaid, education and the environment." Begala recounts an oft-told story in which Clinton, during a meeting with Gingrich, pointed at the Oval Office desk (named The Resolute, a present from Queen Victoria in 1880) and told the GOP leader, "If you want to pass your budget, you're going to have to put somebody else in this chair." Begala wants Obama to study that Clinton, not the Morris concoction. "It is that Gary Cooper type of leadership," Begala says, "that people are now looking for in President Obama."

Gingrich stubbornly plowed ahead with his spending cuts and forced a government shutdown, which backfired spectacularly and jolted Clinton's sagging poll numbers upward. Clinton's outmaneuvering of Gingrich, his reassuring handling of the Oklahoma City bombing and the steady growth of the economy since he took office — by 1996 the unemployment rate had fallen to 5.4 percent — propelled him to a second term. Morris had little to do with it, which is one reason the former Clinton advisers I interviewed unanimously urged Obama not to follow Morris's triangulation formula. "What Obama should take from the Clinton experience is that you absolutely have to pick some early battles to stand strong on," says Mike Lux, Clinton's special assistant to the president for public liaison. "The Republicans will give us a hundred different opportunities, between bills they introduce and crazy shit they say.... The hardest decision will be picking which ones to focus on." Former Clinton pollster Stan Greenberg says Obama "should be drawing red lines on things that are central to the purpose of his presidency and ought to be looking to get work done with the Republicans in other areas."

Tags: barack obama, bill clinton, center, centrism, clinton, clinton presidency, ideology, liberal, obama, presidency, reagan, reagan presidency, triangulation

    • Ari Berman
    • Ari Berman is a contributing writer for The Nation magazine and a fellow at The Nation Institute. He has written extensively about American politics, foreign policy, and the intersection of money and politics. His stories have also appeared in The New York TimesRolling StoneE...

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