From 'The West Wing' to 'House of Cards'

The Obama era is turning out to be a more pessimistic replay of Bill Clinton’s presidency.

President Barack Obama and former U.S. president Bill Clinton

Different decade, same script

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Last week, the Washington Free Beacon published “The Hillary Papers,” a 40-page document from the papers of Clinton confidante Diane Blair that offered a behind-the-scenes look at Hillary Clinton’s time as first lady. Coupled with Rand Paul’s recent comments about the Lewinsky scandal, it’s now clear that the run-up to 2016 will be spent rehashing 20-year-old affairs.

Yet the narrow focus on the events of the Clinton years obscures just how much that era has continued to shape American politics. Just look at the last few years: a Republican insurgency; a government shutdown; whispers of presidential impeachment; the return of Newt Gingrich and CNN’s Crossfire. It’s as though someone decided the template for the 2010s should be the 1990s, only without the peace and prosperity.

[Check out editorial cartoons about President Obama.]

The election of Barack Obama was supposed to lead the Democratic Party, and the country, in a different direction. When he promised change in 2008, Obama didn’t just mean a change from the Republican policies of the previous eight years. He also meant a change from the politics of the recent Democratic past, the rancor, partisanship and scandal of the Clinton years.

But it was not to be. Thanks both to his personnel and policy priorities and to his Republican opponents, Obama’s presidency has been less Clinton interruptus and more Clinton redux: a health care debacle, historic Republican victories, a shuttered Capitol, a decidedly tempered liberal agenda.

Granted, the parallels aren’t precise. As Mark Twain purportedly said, history doesn’t repeat itself – but it does rhyme. The “grand bargain” has replaced welfare reform as the symbol of the Democratic Party’s concession to conservatism. The scandals of the Obama era come not from the president’s personal failings but his political ones, a faith in government without oversight that accounts for everything from the botched health care rollout to the ongoing NSA controversy.

[See political cartoons about the NSA scandal.]

At least the poisonous politics of the Clinton era had a cultural counterweight, a spirit of optimism borne of the decade’s robust economy and relative peace. Near the end of the Clinton years NBC began airing “The West Wing.” Jed Bartlett and his team may not have scored many policy victories, but their earnest devotion to democracy gave Americans an administration they could admire. Today’s escape from political reality? “House of Cards.” Frank Underwood gets things done, but viewers would be hard-pressed to find a darker, more cynical depiction of politics.

There are, of course, larger forces at play. The parallels between the Clinton and Obama administrations are in part a consequence of being Democrats in a conservative age. In the face of unyielding Republican opposition, any broad liberal agenda quickly gives way to incrementalism. Hillary Clinton may be the heir apparent for the Democrats in 2016, but it’s difficult to imagine any politician who could lead the party in a dramatically different direction.

So prepare to relitigate the 1990s: the blue dress, the Starr Report, Whitewater, Troopergate, even – heaven help us – the death of Vince Foster. The next few years will see a return to the Clinton era. But it should be an easy journey back. After all, we never really left.