The nation’s economy continues to struggle, the Dow is faltering and voters seem broadly unhappy with the way things are working in Washington — typified by the negative reactions to this week’s deal to raise the debt ceiling.
Obama himself has taken a hit; new poll numbers out of crucial swing states like Pennsylvania and Florida suggest a weakened position for the incumbent as he ramps up his re-election race in advance of 2012.
As Obama seeks to pick his way through the difficult political path laid out before him, he would do well to heed the example of the only other modern president who spent his 50th birthday in the White House: Bill Clinton.
“The wheel turns — tenacity, perseverance, perspective, and adaptability are critical,” said Howard Wolfson, a longtime aide to former New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, when asked the lessons that Obama at 50 could learn from Clinton at the same age.
Fifteen years ago — on August 19, 1996 — Bill Clinton turned 50. He, like Obama, celebrated with a birthday party fundraiser. (Clinton partied at Radio City Music Hall, collecting $10 million. Ah, the halcyon days before campaign finance reform).
Though Clinton was a year further along in his re-election race, similarities between the situations of the two men abound.
Clinton, like Obama, had weathered a difficult first three-plus years in the White House — watching as an attempt to overhaul the health care system went horribly wrong and led to Republicans retaking control of the House and Senate in the 1994 midterm elections.
Clinton, like Obama, had engaged in a high-profile skirmish with the new Republican congressional majorities. For Clinton, it was a showdown with House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) over the federal budget that led to an extended shutdown of the federal government. For Obama, it was a narrowly-averted government shutdown and the extended debate over whether and how to raise the debt ceiling.
What Clinton did between the summer of 1995 — the point in his term where Obama is today — and November 1996 provides a successful blueprint for how the current president can claw his way back to a position of electoral strength.
In early August 1995, Clinton’s job approval rating stood at 46 percent in Gallup data. Obama’s most recent Gallup approval number was 42 perrcent.
(Sidebar: The Gallup presidential job approval center, which allows you to compare a series of presidents against one another at various stages of their respective times in office, is an absolutely invaluable resource.)
In his 1996 State of the Union address — a speech seen as the de facto kick off of his re-election race — Clinton famously declared that “the era of big government is over,”a repudiation of years of thinking about the role of government on the liberal left and a high-profile sign of the incumbent’s desire to co-opt the ideological center of the country.
Seven months later — almost to the day — , Clinton signed a welfare reform bill into law, a legislative accomplishment that left liberals cold but appealed to moderate and unaffiliated voters. The strategy infamously became known as triangulation.
By the end of August 1996, as he turned 50 and headed towards a successful re-election campaign, Clinton’s approval rating had skyrocketed up to 60 percent and he was considered a strong favorite against former Kansas senator B ob Dole, who had won the Republican nomination in what was widely regarded as a weak field. (Sound familiar?)
Obama, whether intentionally or not, has begun to follow in the move-to-the-middle footsteps of Clinton.
The president’s decision to cut deals with the House Republican majority on extending the Bush tax cuts, avoiding a government shutdown and raising the nation’s borrowing limit each left liberals complaining that he had given away too much as he tried to appeal to the compromise-minded spirit of independent and moderate voters.
(Make sure to check out our piece from this morning on whether independents actually value compromise.)
“Clinton really dominated the center on fiscal and economic policy with a balanced budget and welfare reform and went after new groups like soccer moms,” said his pollster Mark Penn.
Obama, by contrast, has “built up solid support with young voters but had not really moved to the center in ways that today’s independents respond to and is falling further behind with them.”
Yet the comparison between the paths of the two presidents is intriguing, but not exact.
The biggest difference in their political fates may lie in the state of the economy.
In 1995, the average unemployment rate nationwide was 5.6 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. A year later it dropped to 5.4 percent.
In 2010, unemployment averaged 9.6 percent and few economists expect any significant decline in the number of jobless Americans by the end of this year.
While Clinton was able to make a strong argument that the economic policies he had put in place over the first four years in office had bolstered the jobs picture, that will be a far harder argument for Obama.
Obama’s best play — and the one he seems to have settled on going into 2012 — is that the country has weathered a mighty economic blow, but that he and his administration kept it from being a knockout punch.
Furthemore, heading into the 1996 reelection race, Clinton also had to cope with a series of ethics questions surrounding issues such as his real-estate investments in Arkansas during the 1970s (commonly referred to as Whitewater) and the firing of seven staffers in the White House travel office (aka Travelgate).
“Bill Clinton faced a reelection where voters had concerns about his personal character so he made the election a referendum on his plans versus the Republicans,” said one senior Democratic political consultant granted anonymity to speak candidly. “Barack Obama faces a reelection where the majority of voters like and trust him personally but have concerns around where the country is, so once again the election will be a referendum on the choice between the two parties as opposed to a personal referendum.”
So, what’s an older-and-wiser Obama to do between now and next November to replicate the easy re-election victory enjoyed by Clinton?
“Accomplish or at least appear to be trying to get things done, worry about the base only to the extent that you avoid a primary [and] put all your focus on independents,” advised one former senior Clinton administration official.
How much or little Obama chooses to take that advice could well determine whether he spends his early 50s in or out of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
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