Yesterday I asked (here and here) whether Obama had it in him to rebound from a political defeat the way Bill Clinton rebounded from the 1994 mid-term elections. A comparison of Obama’s and Clinton’s political biographies shows that it’s a little unreasonable to expect Obama to adapt to an ideologically inhospitable environment as readily as Clinton did.
Obama came of age intellectually at Columbia and Harvard Law, where liberalism was de rigueur. Afterwards, he didn’t repair to a place like Bill Clinton’s Arkansas to start his political career. Having made that choice, Clinton’s political ambition obliged him to learn how to reconcile his liberalism to the moral and cultural sensibilities of people outside the liberal community. After winning, then losing and then regaining the Arkansas governorship, Clinton entered the White House with a well-developed capacity to hear himself think about public policy and politicking over the reverberations in the liberal echo chamber.
That skill stood Clinton in good stead during a presidency in which he had to contend, first with a Democratic congressional majority expiring from its own torpor, and then with a fire-breathing Republican majority led by Newt Gingrich. In their anxiety to justify abandoning Hillary Clinton in favor of Obama during the Democratic primaries, liberals tended to remember the Clinton presidency for its ideological timidity and opportunistic triangulations. They’d forgotten that, having thought long and hard about the self-defeating features of conventional liberal public policy, Bill Clinton came to Washington with exemplary objectivity. That’s what enabled him to serve traditional liberal values successfully through the only avenues left open by Republican congressional majorities from 1995 until the end of his presidency. One by-product of Clinton’s success was that, for a time, some of that objectivity rubbed off on the community of liberals, only to be swept aside by the stupefying passions generated by his own impeachment, the 2000 election and the Iraq war.
Nothing in Obama’s political biography prepared him for the objectivity-enhancing rigors of democratic politics in a pluralistic polity. After Harvard, he returned to the south side of Chicago to start a political career in ultra-liberal Hyde Park. That wasn’t a locale where an ambitious liberal politician had to worry about winning support across a very broad spectrum of political opinion. You’d normally expect that a liberal president would have been obliged somewhere along the way to assuage the doubts that his liberal commitments excited in non-liberals. Until recently, however, Obama has led a charmed political life in which, through no particular effort of his own, the seas of political opposition parted miraculously before him.
His first stroke of good luck consisted in the elimination of all serious competition for his Illinois Senate seat when the mysterious disclosure of court-sealed divorce records eliminated, first, his strongest competitor for the Democratic nomination, and then the most formidable candidate seeking the Republican nomination. Thereafter, he was able to win a Senate seat by out-polling one of the hemisphere’s least formidable political candidates, the ultra-conservative, carpet-bagging blowhard Alan Keyes. Obama’s upset of Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries was an astounding political achievement, but it was accomplished mostly by using his early opposition to the Iraq war to pry the liberal base of the party from her grasp. He was never very successful at winning votes from the culturally conservative, working-class Democrats who flocked to Hillary in the late primaries.
In the general election, Obama was able to win the presidency less by selling his liberalism to independent voters than by relentlessly reminding them that he was less like George Bush than John McCain was. By September, that technique seemed to be growing stale as McCain-Palin surged ahead in the polls, but Obama was bailed out when the credit crisis after the collapse of Lehman Brothers and AIG suddenly took the air out of the Republican campaign. Any successful presidential candidate has to be lucky, but it was Obama’s singular good fortune that his liberalism didn’t really become a campaign issue until Joe the Plumber appeared in the election’s final weeks. By then, however, it was too late for McCain to get any real traction opposing Obama’s redistributive agenda.
It took Bill Clinton years to master the political techniques we now call “Clintonian.” Obama’s the last guy you’d expect to have them ready at hand.