President Obama faces the risk next week of an even greater electoral pasting than Bill Clinton suffered in 1994, after his first two years in office.
Yet the personal reaction of the two men to these reversals could not be more different. While Clinton seemed tormented, Obama appears remarkably at peace. The latter response may be more emotionally healthy; whether it’s politically wise is another question.
On the Sunday before the 1994 Republican landslide, I interviewed President Clinton on a fittingly dank morning in San Francisco. Sitting in the backseat of a surprisingly threadbare presidential limousine, Clinton seemed to physically sag under the weight of the approaching repudiation.
As we drove through empty streets, Clinton ricocheted between bitter denunciations of “the intense partisanship of the congressional Republican leadership” and rueful second-guessing of his own decisions. Repeatedly, as if fingering worry beads, he returned to the difficulty of maintaining a thread of connection with voters. “You are so far away from folks, and it is so easy in this environment … for them to feel like they are out of touch with you,” he said. Later, he lamented that he had spent so much time trying to pass his legislative agenda that he had failed to think enough about “how we keep the people in the process” and maintain their support for his program. The gloom surrounding him felt as thick as the fog shrouding the skyline.
When a colleague and I interviewed Obama in the Oval Office last week, he echoed Clinton’s specific point about communication. (Obama argued that the economic crisis he inherited required him to take so many rapid actions that he could not “communicate [my agenda] effectively to the public in any coherent way.”) But in all other respects, Obama struck a conspicuously different tone.
Where Clinton agonized, Obama analyzed. It was clear that Obama has started to think seriously about how he will navigate a Washington with many more Republicans in it. But nothing about him suggested that he viewed the impending arrival of those Republicans as evidence that he needed to radically rethink his presidency. Obama sounded neither shell-shocked nor defiant. He seemed entirely focused on the practical: where he might work with Republicans, and where he expects confrontation (education, infrastructure, and energy in the first group; taxes, health care, and Social Security in the second).
Everything about the conversation reinforced the signal of continuity the president sent this fall when he named confidants Pete Rouse as chief of staff and Tom Donilon as his national security adviser. In private, Obama appears just as unruffled, one White House aide said. Asked whether the president had displayed “angst” over the looming losses, the aide said, “I don’t think that is the right word. He’s come to all these challenges with the same steadiness that people saw on the campaign trail in 2008—never got too hot, never got too cold, but just faced each day and did his best to take it on.”
Obama’s equanimity was indeed a great strength for him in 2008. But if Democrats are routed next week, some of them may wonder whether it is possible to be too cool and collected in the face of calamity.
Clinton’s gloom led to a dramatic reassessment, and ultimately rehabilitation, of his presidency. Characteristically, it took Clinton months to find his footing. But eventually he developed a distinct and powerful voice that emphasized his independence from both parties and enabled him to gain strength when he confronted congressional Republicans (over the budget and government shutdowns) and compromised with them (on welfare reform).
With Washington even more polarized today than in the mid-1990s, Clinton’s particular model of “triangulation” probably isn’t directly applicable to Obama. Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, has already told National Journal that his top priority is to make “President Obama … a one-term president.” That doesn’t augur many Rose Garden signing ceremonies.
More relevant to Obama after next week is Clinton’s willingness to ruthlessly reassess his initial governing strategy, and to accept the internal disruption of importing new advisers to help do so. That process brought its own bumps for Clinton (mercurial consultant Dick Morris, the main import, spiraled from inspired to an embarrassment in near-record time). But, combined with Republican overreaching, Clinton’s repositioning allowed him to regain the political initiative from the GOP by early 1996 and comfortably win reelection that November.
Relative to Clinton in 1994, Obama will emerge from this midterm setback with both greater strengths (a stronger electoral base, grounded in changing demography) and more acute weaknesses (a more sluggish economy and a greater sense that his agenda has failed, partly because so few Democrats have tried to defend it this fall). What Obama shares most with his predecessor is the need to challenge his own assumptions. For Obama, more agonizing now might mean less of it in 2012.
This article appears in the October 27, 2010 edition of National Journal Magazine.