The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Hillary Clinton: The incremental president

Hillary Clinton. (Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press)
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It’s not too early to speculate about Hillary Clinton’s governing style and odds of success as president, as much as it gives me the willies that any such preordination could contribute to undermining it. Trump’s total failure as a candidate makes looking ahead to a Clinton presidency inevitable. How much “freedom to govern” will she have as president, and what will she make of it?

How strong a mandate might Clinton have when she is sworn in? Even if Clinton wins in a landslide (defined here as around 53 percent of the popular vote — with Trump at 44 percent and the rest going to third parties — and more than 350 electoral votes) her victory will be immediately discounted. Her victory will be undermined by exit poll questions such as “Was your vote more in favor of your candidate or opposed to the opponent?” that will show she benefited by running against the most hapless candidate in modern political history.

She may have a new Democratic majority in the U.S. Senate to work with, but all that may get her is a hearing on a Supreme Court nominee that would likely never get confirmed anyway due to the parliamentary requirement of 60 votes to bring cloture. Moreover, the “alt-right” media machine will immediately transition from its role attacking candidate Clinton to attacking President Clinton, perhaps joined by a new Ailes-Trump media outlet. These media sources will provide new reasons to the millions of Americans who already despise Clinton and, in turn, keep a conspiratorial eye on Republicans in Congress to try to keep them from any deals with the devil.

Seven countries, including three Persian Gulf states, donated millions of dollars to the Clinton Foundation when Hillary Clinton was secretary of state. (Video: Bastien Inzaurralde/The Washington Post, Photo: © Lucas Jackson / Reuters/The Washington Post)

So Clinton is most likely to enter the presidency with her freedom to operate constrained. Nonetheless, she could decide to go for broke, reasoning like other recent presidents that the first two years of the first term are the time of maximum political leverage. This conventional strategy of “going big” strikes me as unlikely and unwise. First, Clinton isn’t using her campaign to promote an agenda; she’s using it to win. Second, she doesn’t seem to have any sweeping ideas on the scale of Obama’s health-care plan, Bush’s tax cut or her husband’s economic or health-care ideas. Third, her strength is not selling big ideas to a recalcitrant nation but in working to win incremental change — and here is where the opportunity lies.

It may be that some in the Clinton camp figure Republican obstructionism will backfire on them in 2017 and they can rely on that energy to propel a more ambitious agenda. After all, it has been their governing strategy while out of the White House. But Clinton’s team should remember that she and Obama made it easier for Americans to tolerate, if not embrace, obstructionism because they sought sweeping changes and appeared, at times, to ram those changes down the country’s throat. And her team should consider that the best way to deal with obstructionism is not all at once, but slowly and methodically. Find some “little” things like infrastructure investment in return for some modest tax reform, for example, and work from there. Instead of drawing down on nonexistent political leverage, build it instead. Imagine a presidency that gets off to a good start; we haven’t had many. Why not think about how you’ll be judged after eight years instead of eight months?

Finally, make some small gestures at the beginning, like scaling back the inauguration to a simple swearing-in ceremony and a speech. Forget the corporate donations, balls and parade. Tell the country, you don’t deserve a celebration; you’ve got work to do.