The Clinton Agenda’s Two Possible Paths

If Hillary Clinton wins, would she emulate the President Obama who racked up big early legislative victories? Or the one who had to lean on executive actions?

Hillary Clinton speaks at the Cleveland Industrial Innovation Center on Monday.
AP Photo/Tony Dejak
June 13, 2016, 8:01 p.m.

Republicans like to say that a Hillary Clinton presidency would provide a proverbial third term for President Obama.

But when it comes to Clinton’s success or failure with Congress, the “third term” concept could mean one of two things—either that she’ll shepherd major legislative vehicles into law, or that she’ll be stymied by Republicans and focus mostly on executive actions and small-ball bills. And the path she follows could largely be out of her hands.

Obama’s early days, essentially the first year and a half, were marked by a series of mammoth legislative wins—the stimulus package, Obamacare, and the Dodd-Frank law to revamp financial regulation.

But once Obama lost his filibuster-proof majority in the Senate in early 2010 and the Republicans took control of the House the following year, Obama’s days of steering big, big stuff through Congress were basically over. (His struggles even spawned a cottage industry among pundits for who could make the best “If only Obama were better at schmoozing Republicans” case.)

So if Clinton beats Donald Trump in November, which version of Obama would she become?

William Galston, a former policy adviser to President Bill Clinton, says the possibility of a big win that hands back control of Congress to Democrats can’t be ruled out. But even if that doesn’t happen, he predicts that a President Hillary Clinton would not open her presidency with a strong focus on maximizing executive power the way Obama has done in recent years.

“I doubt very much that she would want to begin with a series of assertions of executive authority,” said Galston, who’s now with the Brookings Institution.

“I would expect under those circumstances that she and her transition team would be sitting down with the Republican leadership—assuming that there is any—and say, ‘Look, we can either continue the deadlock of the past six years, and look at where that has gotten our political parties, both of them, or we can try for a different way of doing the nation’s business, and I’m willing to try if you’re willing to try,’” he said.

Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee, has lots of big legislative goals that she wants to move out of the starting gate.

For instance, Clinton has said that she would quickly press Congress on immigration reform, send lawmakers a sweeping $275 billion infrastructure proposal within 100 days, and seek fast action on raising the national minimum wage to $12-per-hour.

Her early agenda, laid out in a January debate, would also build on Obamacare (her plan now includes allowing people as young as 50 or 55 to buy into Medicare), and she mentioned her campaign finance plans, which include a long-shot bid to overturn the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision via constitutional amendment.

But Clinton’s wide-ranging policy proposals on health care, infrastructure, climate and energy, and other issues also contain initiatives that do not need congressional action, even though it’s often a more limited agenda.

Take campaign finance reform, for instance. Her website states:

“Hillary will push for legislation to require outside groups to publicly disclose significant political spending. And until Congress acts, she’ll sign an executive order requiring federal government contractors to do the same. Hillary will also promote [a Securities and Exchange Commission] rule requiring publicly traded companies to disclose political spending to shareholders.”

The down-ballot electoral map means she could be driven to use Obama’s second-term playbook, doing what she can through regulation—and fighting in the courts to keep it intact. Even if Democrats win back the Senate, they’re unlikely to flip the 14 seats needed for a filibuster-proof majority, while taking back the House is also a tall order.

“Clinton as president is going to face a very different political and governing reality than Obama did when he first took office,” said John Hudak, a government expert who is also with Brookings.

Still, even without a friendly Congress, Clinton would have a chance to move important legislation, said former Rep. George Miller, a longtime House Democrat who did not seek reelection in 2014.

Miller, in an interview, says there’s room for deal-making on infrastructure—the physical sort, as well as enhancing support for the nation’s research agencies.

And more broadly, he argues that Clinton’s history in the Senate and career before that make her better poised to work with Congress than Obama, who came in with a shorter political résumé.

Miller and others credit Clinton with forging relationships on both sides of the aisle during her stint as a senator from New York from 2001 until she became Obama’s secretary of State in 2009.

“There is the hard business of getting things done. She has been part of that; she has seen both the success and the failures,” Miller said.

He cites her relationships with Democrats—such as New York colleague Chuck Schumer, whom she worked with in response to the Sept. 11 attacks—and colleagues across the aisle, including GOP Sen. Lamar Alexander.

“She has worked within that process, and I think that is a real big advantage for her,” he said.

Hudak, meanwhile, sees room for progress on an agenda that’s less ambitious than Obama’s wave of legislative successes, but capable of getting support across the aisle. He can envision deals in areas such as infrastructure, criminal justice reform, and fighting opioid abuse.

“She will probably have some successes early on with some legislation, but she is going to have to dial it back,” Hudak said. “She is not going to be able to push for everything she wants in her agenda in the way that Obama was really able to early on.”

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