Ruth Marcus
Columnist September 6, 2012

Bill Clinton ran for office as a New Democrat, a centrist bent on reforming government and promoting personal responsibility. He governed as a New Democrat, passing welfare reform hated by liberals, enacting a free-trade agreement blasted by unions and bringing the budget into surplus with a bipartisan deal.

Ruth Marcus is a columnist and editorial writer for The Post, specializing in American politics and domestic policy. View Archive

And Barack Obama? With Clinton’s impassioned defense of Obama, and Obama, in his acceptance speech, sounding Clintonian themes about how “not every problem can be remedied with another government program or dictate from Washington,” the comparison is unavoidable. Is Obama a different kind of Democrat in the Clinton mode, updated for the 21st century? Is he a more traditional big-government Democrat, a member in good standing of what former Vermont governor Howard Dean used to call “the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party”?

You can discern elements of both approaches in Obama’s rhetoric and governance: episodes that play into the Obama-as-liberal image intermingled with those of centrist accommodation.

Forced to a bumper-sticker explanation of Obamaism, I would settle on “pragmatic progressive” but without absolute certainty that the assessment is accurate.

And that is the enduring surprise. Even after two presidential campaigns and nearly a full term as president, Obama’s precise ideology remains resistant to definition and subject to debate. The 44th president is, as yet, a rough sketch whose distinctive features might require a second term to fully emerge.

“It’s a good question, and the reason why it’s a good question is that I’m not sure of the answer,” one Democratic strategist said when I asked whether Obama was a Clinton Democrat or another type. “He’s always just been an enigma.”

These days, Obama advisers tend to bristle at questions about his ideological differences with Clinton, whose approach he once derided as poll-tested triangulation.

“There is no difference, and I say that because I would describe myself as a New Democrat,” Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who worked for both men, said Wednesday at a breakfast sponsored by The Post and Bloomberg News.

“Bill Clinton reinvented the way we as Democrats, post-Great Society, . . . thought through what government could do,” Emanuel said. “Now, the president, Obama, shares exactly that kind of reinvention and rethinking of what government should do, should not do, and if it’s going to do it, how it should do it differently.”

Certainly, the philosophies and approaches of the two presidents are more similar than different. Clinton sought the liberal grail of expanding the social safety net to include affordable health coverage; Obama completed that decades-long quest.

Clinton forged a budget agreement that cut spending; so, for all the Republican efforts to ignore it, did Obama — a full $1 trillion worth. Obama’s education policies have a distinct New Democratic feel.

Indeed, the new Republican love-fest with Clinton is as hard to take as the party’s caricature of Obama as European-style socialist. Campaigning in Iowa on Wednesday, Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan assailed Obama, inaccurately, for seeking to dismantle the work requirements in Clinton’s welfare reform. He suggested, again misleadingly, that Clinton supported Medicare changes similar to Ryan’s voucher plan. Somehow I don’t remember this Republican urge to cuddle up to Clinton back in the day.

But Emanuel overstates the ideological overlap between the presidents. Clinton was a New Democrat of conviction; he planted himself in the center because that is where he felt ideologically most comfortable — and, cynics might suggest, where a keen eye for politics landed him. He felt in his gut the New Democrat credo of reforming government, harnessing the energy of the private sector, insisting on individual responsibility.

Obama’s tendencies in that direction are more a matter of coolly assessing what is politically possible, combined with an intellectual’s aversion to the unthinking orthodoxies of left and right. Obama’s pragmatism, I believe, is founded on a greater faith than Clinton’s in the capability of government, yet that faith is tempered by a willingness to compromise. When Obama finds himself in the center, that is not necessarily a reflection of an underlying centrist ideology as much as a vehicle for bridging the divides between red and blue America, the soaring vision that brought him to national prominence.

“I actually think when it comes right down to it they’re both very practical,” Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) told me. Obama has made “more practical decisions than most people give him credit for.”

Yes, but Van Hollen’s formulation fudges the essential difference between centrism and pragmatism. They may bring you to the same place, but for fundamentally different reasons.

ruthmarcus@washpost.com