Obama may follow Clinton's model

As one of the most popular politicians in the nation, Clinton is using his credibility to help his party.
By Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 30, 2010; 10:17 PM

In the fall of 1994, Bill Clinton suffered a bruising defeat in his first midterm elections. He held a desultory news conference, then left the country for a whirlwind trip to Indonesia. Back home, the new Republican Congress set about changing the course of his presidency.

If Republicans repeat some version of that narrative on Tuesday, Obama may well follow a path similar to Clinton's - sometimes compromising, at the risk of angering his own base, and sometimes daring the GOP to oppose him, as Clinton did during the government shutdown of 1995.

Already, there are shades of Clinton's rhetoric in Obama's phrases on the campaign trail. Two days after his defeat in 1994, Clinton said he would work with Republicans but block them from doing anything that would "take us back to the policies that failed us before."

Sixteen years later, the line seems still in vogue. "We don't want to relive the past," Obama said Saturday in Chicago, on a campaign swing aimed at shoring up his party's prospects. "We're not going back."

Their schedules this week may turn out to be mirror images as well. On Friday, Obama is slated to leave for a 10-day trip to Asia that includes three nights in Indonesia.

In 1994, when Clinton made a similar post-election trip, he found himself, during a stop in Jakarta, discussing the minutiae of domestic policy, including his willingness to work with Republicans on a constitutional amendment allowing prayer in public schools.

Some of the issues Obama has said he wants to pursue next year, such as deficit reduction and education initiatives, resemble the kinds of narrow and achievable priorities Clinton embraced immediately after both houses changed hands in 1994.

White House officials resist comparisons between the two presidents. If the House falls into Republican hands, they say, Obama will not repeat the Clinton governing script of 1995, when the former president downsized his ambitions and often used the newly Republican Congress to his advantage by finding areas of compromise.

That "triangulation" approach aggravated Clinton's liberal base, as did his smaller-scale policy proposals, such as advocating school uniforms. But it built Clinton a centrist coalition nationwide and secured his reelection two years later. "This president is not like that president," one senior White House official said.

Obama advocates argue that he is temperamentally ill suited to such a strategy, both because he is more interested in broad change than small-bore tinkering and because it requires a level of deal-making that he has not appeared comfortable with.

Where Clinton developed decent working relationships with the GOP leadership, especially House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, Obama has not shown much interest in befriending congressional leaders of either party - and certainly not his political opponents, who are more openly hostile than even those in the 1990s.

Sen. Mitch McConnell, the leader of the Republicans in the Senate, recently said his main objective next year will be to ensure Obama is a one-term president.

Yet some Obama defenders say the president should look to the previous Democratic president as a model. "I do see a similarity to the Clinton experience," said Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, a Democrat. "The divided government result, if it happens, is good for the president, because he now has some potential enemies but he also has some potential partners to get things done where he didn't have them before."

Using the dreaded "t-word," Richardson said: "It gives President Obama a chance to triangulate on several issues of importance that he's going to need to get through the next two years."

Administration officials hope Obama will be able to shift attention to foreign policy on his trip overseas, especially in Indonesia, after canceling two previous visits to the country. But they acknowledge it will be impossible for him to duck the subject of the midterms, and his presidency, no matter much distance he puts between Washington and himself. Clinton tried to do that, too.

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