The Clintonian Candidate

By Ruth Marcus
Wednesday, January 31, 2007

There's a Clinton in the presidential race. The surprise: It may not be Hillary.

The truly Clintonian figure running for the Democratic nomination is Barack Obama. The senator from Illinois, it's struck me lately, seems in many ways more like Bill Clinton than does the senator from New York.

When it comes to Obama and Bill Clinton, there are superficial similarities -- the absent father, the humble roots combined with Ivy League pedigree. Leave aside who would be the first black president, as many said of Clinton -- both represent generational change, Clinton as the first baby boomer president, Obama as the first would-be president of the post-baby boom.

Man from Hope -- meet Audacity of Hope.

Of course, the fit isn't exact: Obama, unlike Clinton, doesn't seem to have been running for the presidency since birth. But there are deeper ways, in his intellectual approach, his message and his personal style, in which Obama evokes Clinton.

Like Clinton before him, Obama presents himself as a new kind of politician who can rise above and bridge partisan differences. Go back to Clinton's 1991 announcement speech, and it's easy to imagine Obama speaking.

"Today, our leaders in Washington seem incapable of working together in a practical, common sense way," lamented one politician. The other called for "a new kind of leadership . . . not mired in the politics of the past, not limited by old ideologies." Can you tell the difference? The first is Obama, the second Clinton, but either could have been channeling the other.

Like Clinton, Obama has a homing instinct for the middle -- maybe too much of one. To read his book "The Audacity of Hope" is to be struck by his constant desire to understand -- even more, to respect -- conflicting views on whatever issue he happens to be discussing.

This is impressive until it becomes, finally, exasperating in its seemingly compulsive even-handedness. "I'm not unsympathetic to Justice Scalia's position," Obama, recovering law review president that he is, writes about the debate on constitutional interpretation. "Like many conservatives . . . I believe we ignore culture factors at our peril," he writes about the values debate. "Not all these fears are irrational," he writes of anti-immigrant sentiment.

In fact, Obama fits himself explicitly into the Clinton mold. "In his platform -- if not always in his day-to-day politics -- Clinton's Third Way went beyond splitting the difference," he writes. "It tapped into the pragmatic, nonideological attitude of the majority of Americans."

To Clinton critics drawn to Obama, equating them seems too facile: Obama's centrist tropism is born of a desire to accommodate and transcend differences, they argue, while Clinton's was an artifact of ruthless calculation in which he submerged differences for political advantage.

To Clinton advocates still unsure about Obama, the younger man has yet to demonstrate the capacity, in his own "day-to-day politics," to put his brand of Third Wayism into action. Clinton's Sister Souljah moment may have been the premeditated political move of a Slick Willie -- Obama suggests as much in his book -- but Obama doesn't have anything similar to brandish as a badge of New Democratic difference.

It's hard to name a prominent moment when, like Clinton pushing welfare reform, he deviated from party orthodoxy. Sorry, senator, but voting for class action lawsuit reform doesn't cut it. Obama's book features an erudite discussion of the folly, and futility, of resisting globalization -- at which point he summarily announces that he voted against the Central American Free Trade Agreement nonetheless. His signature divergence from the other leading candidates in the Democratic field comes from the left: He opposed the Iraq war from the start.

Obama is like Bill Clinton in his natural ease with people and his ability to win them over. A New York Times story about Obama's law school days described how Obama "cast himself as an eager listener, sometimes giving warring classmates the impression that he agreed with all of them at once." As they debated whether to use the term "black" or "African-American," "students on each side of the debate thought he was endorsing their side," the story said. " 'Everyone was nodding, Oh, he agrees with me,' " said professor Charles Ogletree.

Sounds like everyone who's ever emerged from a meeting with Bill Clinton.

If Obama is the Clintonian figure in the race, Hillary Clinton may be Al Gore, more disciplined policy wonk than natural politician. Like Gore, Hillary Clinton can be more adroit intellectually than politically; both face the challenge, fair or not, of convincing voters of their "authenticity."

It's hard to know whether the tempered Clinton or the untested Obama will prove the stronger candidate -- or would be the better president. But with both of them in the race, the 2008 campaign presents a twist on the 1992 offer: two Clintons for the price of one.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company