That criticism may have been partly an effort to appeal to liberal voters that Obama hoped to consolidate against Hillary Rodham Clinton. But it also reflected a deeper conviction in the Obama camp that Clinton had failed to change the parameters of the possible that Reagan had established. In an early 2009 interview, David Axelrod, the president’s senior political adviser, said that the White House believed the financial crash of 2008 had discredited Reagan’s government-is-the-problem philosophy in a way that had not been true during the Clinton years.
The result, Axelrod argued, was that Obama possessed much more latitude than Bill Clinton to advance programs that expand government’s role. “There’s a cyclical nature to American politics, and there are epochs,” Axelrod told me at the time. “And in 1980, the New Deal-Great Society epoch came to end, and it launched another [conservative] era that I think history will say lasted 28 years.” While the Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon presidencies were “wedged into” the New Deal epoch, and Clinton’s into the conservative era, Axelrod continued, each were constrained by the “governing theory” set by Roosevelt and Reagan, respectively.
Obama operated on that belief by pushing more aggressively than Clinton to expand Washington’s role in confronting an array of problems while placing less emphasis than his predecessor on balancing such activism with highly visible government reform, like Clinton’s welfare plan. The two men diverged even in their response to landslide repudiations during their first midterm elections. While forcefully resisting Republican budget ideas, Clinton moved in other ways to the center (through a policy known as “triangulation” that Obama criticized in 2008). Obama also began in that direction, but after the breakdown of budget negotiations during the debt-ceiling standoff in 2011, he reversed course toward confrontation and defining sharper differences with Republicans—the approach that still characterizes his campaign today.
Romney has tried to exploit these differences by accusing Obama of reverting to a pre-Clinton traditional liberalism, just as George W. Bush did against Al Gore in 2000. “President Clinton said the era of big government was over,” Romney declared this May. “President Obama brought it back with a vengeance.” More recently, Romney has accused Obama of undermining Clinton’s welfare-reform law.
Clinton sought to rebut all of those charges as he worked through his extended defense of Obama. Yet the fact that Obama, to counter those accusations, sought to benefit from his predecessor’s credibility with independent and centrist voters, suggests that he if wins another term, he still might have something to learn from Clinton’s determination to pursue traditional liberal aims with means infused by historic conservative priorities like personal responsibility and fiscal restraint.