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Saturday, May 25, 2024

Column: Obama is no Clinton

It is clear that post-midterm elections Washington will be such that President Obama has to move center of right. In the past six months, I have been toying with the idea of Clintonesque change in Obama’s governance pattern in the aftermath of last week’s elections. Yes, that’s ’cause I predicted (check my first Aggie column “1929 or 2009”) the outcome. Thinking long and hard about a pragmatic presidency engaging Newt Gingrich’s “Contract for America” in 1994, however, and substituting Obama and Tea Party activism, the picture just doest not frame well.

Before we go into the “why” I think this is not 1994, or Obama is not Clinton, let me do some small talk and house keeping here. I caught some flak from Davis College Democrats (DCD) for my “enthusiasm gap” claims about prospective Democratic voters. If the front page of last week’s Aggie, which led with the California elections results, is gospel, then you guys at DCD stand vindicated. My bad.

Let us first deal with the subtle and not-so-subtle differences between the Clinton and Obama presidencies. Both presidencies inherited a recession of sorts and budget deficits, but Obama’s mantle came with the greatest recession since the Great Depression. Clinton is a politician who had gubernatorial experience dealing with conservatives in his home state of Arkansas before stepping into the White House. Clinton knew the art of compromise, and was able to walk across the aisle and work with Republicans in getting reforms, balancing the budget and leaving a surplus. Obama’s one term in the Senate does not leave an especially convincing record of aisle crossing, compromise, consensus building or deal making. Politics, unlike activism, is a game of compromise. Obama has to learn that, and pretty darn fast.

About acting like a politician and casting well in the accompanying role and theatrics, there is no gainsaying the fact that Clinton bests what we’ve seen of Obama so far. The former president knows when and how to act for the cameras. I watched him sound off, during the Clinton Global Initiative in September and on the campaign trail leading to the mid terms, closely. I saw a politician with enough fire in his belly to carry the courage of his convictions, very far. Even from within his party, Obama, since enterting the White House, seems very aloof and sedate. Consequently, he is not connecting with “Joe Six-Pack” and his ilk. During the Gulf Oil Spill there were loud yelps for Obama to bring some drama to the presidency. Perception, they say, goes a long way, especially in the current political climate.

Still, on political prowess (or lack thereof), let us look at loyalty and fixation on ideology as crucial indicators for whether a politician will acclimatize as the political tempo changes. We have yet to see that “nothing is off the table” or “all bets are off” moment from Obama.

Imagine in the heat of the midterm campaign, there was this misstep of going to Rhode Island and refusing to endorse the Democratic candidate Frank Caprio, apparently because of an enduring friendship with Republican opponent Lincoln Chafee. This brings up two things: First, there is no such thing as a “gentleman politician;” you are in it to win, Mr. President! Second? As Howard Dean and many others have said, heads need to roll at the White House and fresh hands brought on deck. Who is advising the president that did not tell him to stay clear of Rhode Island? There is a litany of such missteps. And you wonder why the Obama administration can’t market health care reform?

President Clinton had his own albatross around his neck in the infamous Monica Lewinsky probe, leading up to his impeachment, but Obama’s troubles are manifold. Obama’s election to the White House was supposed to be “historic,” “post-racial” and “post-partisan.” The reality bears otherwise.

On the partisan front, we hope that will change in the coming months, for our collective sakes as a nation. However, there is 800-pound gorilla in the room that we hardly want to talk about: The fact the not all the angst for Obama is entirely a repudiation of his policies. He is also “different” from the 43 presidents that preceded him. Remember when “Granny” asked Senator John McCain on the 2008 campaign trail to confirm if Obama was a Muslim and a foreigner? Well, I don’t think talks of “death panels” helped much, either. Fifty-nine percent of seniors voted Republican as opposed to 38 percent voting Democratic. Mitch McConnell takes “the president at his word” that he was born in Hawaii. Gingrich sees a “tribal Kenyan” with “anti-colonial” sentiment in the president. Clinton did not have to deal with that “otherness.”

This “unique” identity, in addition to the economy, questionable advisers and occasional inability to connect with the public, makes it harder for Obama to replicate Clinton’s success.

Reach FAYIA SELLU at fmsellu@ucdavis.edu.


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