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Would we be better off under a President Hillary Clinton?

By Dana Milbank
Sunday, November 7, 2010;

As I sat in the East Room last week watching a forlorn President Obama account for his shellacking, I listened with concern as he described the presidency as a "growth process" and suggested that the midterm setback was somehow inevitable. "You know, this is something that I think every president needs to go through," he said.

It brought to mind Hillary Clinton's 3 a.m. phone-call ad from the 2008 campaign, and her withering criticism of Obama: "When there is a crisis . . . there's no time for speeches or on-the-job training." I wondered whether Democrats would be in the fix they're in if they had chosen a different standard-bearer.

Would unemployment have been lower under a President Hillary? Would the Democrats have lost fewer seats on Tuesday? It's impossible to know. But what can be said with confidence is that Clinton's toolkit is a better match for the current set of national woes than they were for 2008, when her support for the Iraq war dominated the campaign.

Back then, Clinton's populist appeal to low-income white voters, union members and workers of the Rust Belt was not enough to overcome Obama's energized youth vote. But Clinton's working-class whites were the very ones who switched to the Republicans on Tuesday.

Back in '08, Clinton's scars from HillaryCare were seen as a liability, proof that she was a product of the old ways of Washington. But now that Obama has himself succumbed to the partisanship, his talk of a "growth process" in office makes Clinton's experience in the trenches look like more of an asset.

Clinton campaign advisers I spoke with say she almost certainly would have pulled the plug on comprehensive health-care reform rather than allow it to monopolize the agenda for 15 months. She would have settled for a few popular items such as children's coverage and a ban on exclusions for pre-existing conditions. That would have left millions uninsured, but it also would have left Democrats in a stronger political position and given them more strength to focus on job creation and other matters, such as immigration and energy.

The Clinton campaign advisers acknowledge that she probably would have done the auto bailout and other things that got Obama labeled as a socialist. The difference is that she would have coupled that help for big business with more popular benefits for ordinary Americans.

Clinton, for example, first called for a 90-day foreclosure moratorium in December 2007, as part of a package to fight the early stages of the mortgage crisis with a five-year freeze on subprime rates and $30 billion to avoid foreclosures. But an Obama campaign adviser dismissed Clinton's moratorium, saying it would "reward people for bad behavior."

Calls for a moratorium returned a few weeks ago with news of lenders' foreclosure abuses. Polls indicate public support for a moratorium, but Obama ruled it out. It's a safe bet Clinton would have done otherwise.

Some differences would have been stylistic. As a senator from New York, Clinton had good relations with Wall Street. As the heir to her husband's donor base, she would have had more executives in government - envoys who would have been able to ease the uncertainty about tax and regulatory policy that has been crippling business.

Most important, there can be little doubt that, whatever policies emerged, she would have maintained a laser focus on the economy; after all, she did that during the 2008 campaign, when it wasn't as central an issue. She got little credit, for example, when she gave a speech in Iowa in November 2007 warning about the dangers of new financial instruments. Now, it seems prescient; then, it sounded boring.

There was plenty not to like about Clinton's campaign, particularly her persistence in the race long after she had a chance. Had she beaten Obama, she might have introduced her own problems (a new entanglement with Iran, perhaps?). But a failure to connect with the common man would not have been among them.

Back in April 2008, a Clinton ad delivered a populist blow to Obama: "When the housing crisis broke, Hillary Clinton called for action: a freeze on foreclosures. Barack Obama said 'no.' . . . People are hurting. It's time for a president who's ready to take action now."

Obama survived the challenge then. But times changed, and the president, feeling "removed" from the people, asked in the East Room how he can give Americans "confidence that I'm listening to them?"

The answer is simple: Do what Hillary would have done.

danamilbank@washpost.com

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