Thursday, October 14, 2010

Obama girds for 1994 II

Arguably the most revealing passage in Peter Baker's long interview with Obama is the very last sentence:

Well, I’m actually looking at “The Clinton Tapes,” which is Taylor Branch’s chronicle of certain conversations he had with Clinton. It is fascinating.

Those "certain conversations" occurred throughout Clinton's presidency -- they represent Clinton's attempt to get a real-time record while memory was fresh.  (Clinton kept the tapes, but after each session, Branch recorded what he could recall while driving home).   When Branch published The Clinton Tapes in 2009, striking parallels in the Republican response to a moderate Democratic president were already coming into focus.  Awareness of the parallels doubtless shaped Branch's presentation somewhat. But the raw material is Clinton's contemporaneous recollection.

The fulcrum of Clinton's story is the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994. By that point, Clinton was as proud of his legislative record as Obama is now. Here he is on Nov. 10, 1994:
What a great start for a presidency-with five million new jobs, peace initiatives around the world, headed into a third year of unprecedented deficit reduction--until the crash in Tuesday's election.

It was in the middle term -- after Clinton successfully staved off the Gingrich Congress's atempt to radically cut Medicaid and Medicare and once perception of rip-roaring economic recovery caught up with reality -- that those accomplishments bore fruit for Clinton.  And Obama plainly has that political rhythm in mind:
On whether the experiences of past presidents offer him any lessons.
Look, history never precisely repeats itself. But there is a pattern in American presidencies — at least modern presidencies. You come in with excitement and fanfare. The other party initially, having been beaten, says it wants to cooperate with you. You start implementing your program as you promised during the campaign.

The other party pushes back very hard. It causes a lot of consternation and drama in Washington.
People who are already cynical and skeptical about Washington generally look at it and say, This is the same old mess as we’ve seen before. The president’s poll numbers drop. And you have to then sort of wrestle back the confidence of the people as the programs that you’ve put in place start bearing fruit and people can suddenly start seeing, Hey, you know what, this health care bill means my kid isn’t losing her health insurance once she leaves college even though she doesn’t have a job yet. Or you know what, the credit-card company can’t jack up my interest rate suddenly, and this is actually saving me some money. Or I’m a small business, and lo and behold, I don’t have to pay capital gains on my start-up, and I can plow that money back into my business.

And what you hope is that over time, despite all the rhetoric, people start seeing concrete benefits from what you’re doing and what was a valley goes back into a peak.

Now what you also hope is that sort of the ups and downs, the highs and lows start evening out a little bit so that people don’t have unrealistic expectations about how quickly we can move on big issues in a democracy but people don’t also plunge into despair when it takes more than six months to transform the world.
Strange indeed is the psychodrama with Bill Clinton in which Obama finds himself enmeshed. Recall that during the 2008 campaign, Obama gave Bill Clinton "tremendous credit" for balancing the budget, while velvet glove-punching him (and by extension Hillary) for not being able to put through a legislative agenda:

I actually give Bill Clinton enormous credit for having balanced those budgets during those years. It did take political courage for him to do that. But we never built the majority and coalesced the American people around being able to get the other stuff done.

Now, facing the loss or radical diminution of his majority in Congress, Obama finds himself girding to protect the landmark new-policy initiatives passed by the 111th Congress -- of the type that eluded Clinton -- and to reproduce Clinton's budget-balancing accomplishments, under even more difficult circumstances. Staring 1994 II in the face, he reiterates the "tremendous credit" and omits the big but:
And one of the most frustrating things that I see in the political environment right now is the Republican Party is still selling this notion somehow that they can cut taxes for millionaires and billionaires and preserve things that they know poll well like Social Security and Medicare and veterans affairs and this and that and the other, and somehow they’re going to balance the budget.

We have not had a serious conversation about that since Bill Clinton was in office. It was a huge accomplishment of President Clinton’s. It required enormous courage. And I still don’t think he gets enough credit for that.

Now what’s going to make it even more difficult is the fact that he was able to balance the budget and achieve a surplus in the context of an economy that was growing fairly rapidly and that was coming out of a recession that was fairly shallow.

Trying to do this when the economy is still very weak and we lost 8 million jobs means that you’ve got to apply the brake and the accelerator at the same time, and that’s a tricky thing to pull off.
Obama's delineation of the budget conundrum, moreover, points to a Clintonian solution.  He lists so many essential investments, that the conclusion is clear by omission: he will need to find cover to raise taxes (and protect the PPA, which embodies his best hopes for entitlement cost control):
And the big debate that we’re going to have to have as a country is what is important enough to us that we’re willing to pay for it — and then who pays for it? I think Social Security is important and we have to pay for it. I think Medicare is important and we have to pay for it. I think both programs can be more efficient, but I think those provide a core safety net to the American people. I think that our investments in education are absolutely critical to our long-term economic health.

I think we have to have infrastructure that keeps up with the demands of the 21st century. We can’t have a China that has the best airports, the best railways, the best roads, and we are still relying on infrastructure that was built 200 years ago or 100 years ago or even 50 years ago when it comes to things like broadband lines.

I’m going to have to make an argument that if we say we revere our veterans, then when our veterans come home, we’ve got to pay for treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder. We’ve got to pay for traumatic brain injury. And we’ve got to care for families who have lost a loved one. And all that stuff costs money.
And when you tally it all up, then it turns out that there’s no such thing as a free lunch
It must indeed be fascinating for Obama to read his own political history in his (Democratic) predecessor's. I have noted some parallels before -- perhaps the most  striking of which, as Wall Street and the health insurers strike in the wake of Citizens United, is Clinton's encapsulation of a long-term rule of U.S. politics:
"Bluntly, said the president, the difference between the two political parties is that the Democrats sell access and the Republicans sell control. 'Businesspeople know a bargain when they see one,' Clinton observed. 'They'd' rather have the control, and they're willing to pay a premium for it'"(280).
The broader strategic Republican replay is well-known but "fascinating" to encounter in detail. First, the obstruction:
Clinton said Dole spoke of the opposition's job not as making deals but rather making the president fail, so he could be replaced as quickly as possible (p. 8).
         *                      *                      *                    *                       *                 *
He said the Republicans, upon losing the crime bill in August, had resolved to let nothing else pass. As a unified minority, they blocked routine confirmations, delayed votes, and objected to parliamentary shortcuts. They mounted successful filibusters against sixteen [!] bills and turned abruptly against their own legislation. On "Gridlock Day," October 5, they stopped everything. They postponed the popular Superfund reform for environmental reclamation, and the Senate killed a public disclosure act that had passed 94-6 on a preliminary vote.  Clinton said lobbyists cheered Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina when he left the Senate floor in triumph, having brazenly praised their secretive clout as a shield against meddlesome big government (p. 202).

Doubtless, too, Obama is studying the government shutdown and how it boomeranged on the Republicans, pushed to the right even of Gingrich by freshman extremists:
Both sides claimed to move toward a balanced budget without new taxes on the middle class, but the Republicans were trying to ram through a $245 billion tax cut when the were $580 billion apart on spending. Whenever they approached serious negotiations, he said, Gingrich faced revolt from a substantial wing of his party that did not want to reach agreement with Clinton on anything. They believed he would fold on the budget, and they did not really care if the government shut down for lack of appropriations on public credit. Their primary goal was to punish all but the military hierarchies, and many of them saw no legitimate role for the civilian agencies, anyway, to the point that they really believed the country would be rejuvenated without them. He said pride and ideology blinded them to common purpose, including their own dependence on public services from markets and meat inspectors to sewerage (pp. 299-300).

And the endgame:
If he [Clinton] must close the government to uphold countervailing values, so be it. He promised Gingrich and Dole that they would feel his priorities before this was over.

Gingrich especially seemed shaken by the final notice. They were going over the cliff after all, and the speaker quickly confided his surprise. All his calculations had assumed Clinton would bend or fold. Clinton said he thought Gingrich and his caucus were fooled by their own propaganda about the moral force of their proclaimed crusade. In the past week of shock and shutdown, as the president's approval ratings skyrocketed while those of Congress plummeted, they clung to hopes that the adverse reaction was temporary panic (p. 313).
What is Obama getting from The Clinton Tapes? Let's hope it's a full measure of that "enormous courage" he now lauds without qualification.

More on Taylor Branch's The Clinton Tapes
Bill Clinton, Happy Warrior
A Clinton-eye view of Republicans
The long view from China
Obama, Clinton, Woodward, Branch

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