Feel a new master narrative about the Obama presidency setting in? You know how it goes because it's being dusted-off from the Clinton presidency: a brilliant liberal president, brimming with youthful idealism but lacking in worldly wisdom, sets up shop in Washington. He immediately starts trying to remake the political economy to his ideological specifications only to be humbled in the mid-term election. Being a quick study, however, he soon figures out that, if he wants to get along with a successful presidency, he’ll have to start going along with the ways of Washington. Before you know it, the upstart starts looking like an accomplished tactician, prying major concessions out of the sweaty hands of befuddled Republicans.“Hmmm. So Obama will have a tax deal, repeal of DADT, a food safety bill, approval of New START, and (maybe) the 9/11 first responders bill to his credit during the lame duck session. On the downside, the DREAM Act and the omnibus budget bill failed.
“If this is how things turn out, that's a helluva lame duck session. Maybe we should have more of them?”
I don’t deny that there are likely to be important parallels between the Clinton and Obama presidencies. But the idea that they’re likely to consist in Clinton and Obama undergoing a similar transformation from a doctrinaire liberal to a triangulating pragmatist isn’t one of them. For one thing, Clinton was already a triangulating pragmatist before he ever got to Washington. For another, the idea that Obama is now undergoing that transformation himself isn’t supported by the facts.
If you’re determined enough, you can shoehorn the tax deal and START ratification into the new master narrative. In the first case Obama gave way on upper-bracket tax cuts in exchange for some more fiscal stimulus and in the second, it looks like he’s relaxing his longstanding resistance to missile defense in order to get to 67 Senate votes for ratification.
Yet Obama’s making concessions in these two respects hardly signals a change in his approach to governing. Remember the six months he spent urging Harry Reid to troll ineffectually for Republican votes with respect to health care reform? The difference now is that Republican and Democratic preferences as to fiscal policy and arms control overlap enough to make both sides willing to split the baby on those issues. Compromise on the omnibus spending bill (with its funding for ObamaCare implementation) and the Dream Act was out of the question because, in both cases, Republicans are unalterably opposed to the Democratic approach to those issues. A recalibration of Obama’s ideological compass has nothing much to do with it.
If you ask me, the more pertinent parallel between Clinton’s presidency and the likely future of Obama’s is this: During the first two years of his presidency, Clinton was undone by the fact that he couldn’t get Democratic congressional leaders to buy into his priorities. After 1994, when Democrats lost both houses of Congress, Clinton no longer had to defer to people like George Mitchell and Thomas Foley (who wasn't even reelected). Thereafter, Democratic decision-making power was centralized in the White House, enabling Clinton to cut his own deals with the Republican opposition. He was good at it.
Something similar is happening now. When he brought his ambitious agenda to Washington, Obama was determined not to repeat Clinton’s mistakes by alienating congressional Democrats. So he deferred to the legislative judgment and governing priorities of Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, et al. Obama has paid a steep political price for it, although it may have enabled him to get ObamaCare, the first stimulus bill and the financial reform bill through Congress.
Things have changed in Washington insofar as the White House is no long delegating the negotiation of legislative issues to the congressional leaders. The two issues that Obama plainly cared most about during this lame-duck session, the tax deal and START-ratification, were the subject of direct negotiations between the White House and the Republican Senate leadership—Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi were left out in the cold. And DADT-repeal got back on track when, with the White House’s blessing, Reid handed over the legislative reigns to Joe Lieberman to stage an up-or-down vote.
Obviously, a Democratic president loses the political clout to promote an ideologically ambitious agenda when there's no longer a sympathetic congressional majority behind him. But, political speaking, the autonomy he gains from a fractious Democratic congressional caucus enables him to look out more effectively for himself. Clinton made good use of it, and it’s beginning to look like Obama might too. That's probably better news for Obama than it is for the Democratic Party.