Healthcare legislation is stalled on Capitol Hill. Democrats have rising doubts about the president's larger agenda. Republicans are uniting in opposition. The public is worried about what it sees as break-the-bank government activism. Congressional incumbents are concerned about growing voter anger toward Washington. Democratic prospects in the midterm elections look bleak. All in all, it amounts to a presidency in trouble.
This was the situation facing Bill Clinton in 1994 after his first year on the job. And it's eerily similar to the circumstances in which President Obama finds himself today. In fact, some Obama allies say it would be wise for him to study the problems of his embattled predecessor and learn how Clinton pulled himself out of a sinkhole and won re-election in 1996.
Obama and Clinton have more than political problems in common. Both were among the five youngest presidents ever. Clinton took office as the third youngest at 46. Obama was the fifth youngest at 47. (Theodore Roosevelt was the youngest of all at 42.) Clinton and Obama benefited at first from an image of vigor and a commitment to change. But as they started their second year in office, both suffered from the perception that they were too inexperienced, that they were seriously weakened, and that there was little or no downside to confronting or opposing them. Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, says Obama and his administration "don't have the ability to scare people"—the same problem that Clinton had.
Clinton took on the budget issue early, recalls Mike McCurry, Clinton's White House press secretary, and moved toward deficit reduction and a balanced budget. Republicans opposed him, arguing that his prescriptions were based on too many tax increases. But Clinton got his spending plan through Congress with Democratic votes. This parallels Obama's governing almost exclusively with Democratic support on his key priorities.
But there are some differences that could help Obama. It wasn't until August 1994 that the Clinton White House and Democratic strategists realized how unpopular the Democrats had become and how much of a groundswell was building in favor of the GOP. In that November's midterm elections, the Republicans took control of both the House and Senate for the first time in a generation—a cataclysm for the Democrats and the Clinton administration.
Today, Obama and his advisers have been put on alert much sooner than Clinton was. The early warnings have come from several places, including the angry conservative "tea party" protests last summer and the Republican victories in the recent Senate election in Massachusetts and in gubernatorial elections in New Jersey and Virginia. "Obama has had his rendezvous with political reality a year earlier than Clinton," McCurry says, so Obama and his aides have time to do something about it.
Over the long run, Clinton made the best of his misfortunes. He moved to the center and pigeonholed new House Speaker Newt Gingrich and his fellow congressional conservatives as right-wing zealots. This enabled Clinton to emerge as a moderating force, which helped him win re-election in 1996.
For their part, Obama and his strategists argue that the nation's problems are more difficult and wide-ranging today, ranging from the weak economy, high unemployment, two wars, a global conflict with terrorism, and hyperpolarization in Congress. Also, many independent voters, who are increasingly crucial in elections, have turned against Obama for spending too much and pushing the government into too many areas, such as bailing out banks and auto companies. Their conclusion: "He's not who they thought he was," McCurry says.
On the positive side, Obama seems to be a much better administrator than Clinton was. A cloud of chaos seemed to hover over Clinton's head. He would hold seemingly endless policy discussions and change his mind frequently. At one point, his senior staff realized that Clinton was secretly talking to Dick Morris, a pollster and longtime strategist who was described by one Clinton aide as "a rogue adviser working covertly with the president to develop 'Plan B.' " Obama, on the other hand, seems a lot more disciplined and methodical than Clinton. Obama makes decisions crisply and moves on, and he listens to his staff.
The question is whether history will repeat itself and Obama will eventually find his way out of the political swamp the way Clinton did.