After a bruising midterm election, the president moves to the political center. He distances himself from his Democratic base. He calls for cuts in Social Security and signs historic legislation ending a major entitlement program. He agrees to balance the budget with major cuts in domestic discretionary spending. He has a showdown with Republicans who threaten to bring government to its knees if their budget demands aren’t met. He wins the showdown, successfully painting them as radicals. He goes on to win re-election.
Barack Obama in 2012? Maybe. But the president who actually did it was Bill Clinton. (The program he ended was Title IV of the Social Security Act, Aid to Families with Dependent Children.)
It’s no accident that President Obama appears to be following the Clinton script. After all, it worked. Despite a 1994 midterm election that delivered Congress to the GOP and was widely seen as a repudiation of his presidency, President Clinton went on to win re-election. And many of Mr. Obama’s top aides—including Chief of Staff Bill Daley, National Economic Council head Gene Sperling and Pentagon chief Leon Panetta—are Clinton veterans who know the 1995-96 story line by heart.
Republicans have obligingly been playing their parts this time. In the fall of 1995, Speaker Newt Gingrich was the firebrand, making budget demands that the public interpreted as causing two government shutdowns—while President Clinton appeared to be the great compromiser. This time it’s House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and his Republican allies who appear unwilling to bend and risk defaulting on the nation’s bills—while President Obama offers to cut Social Security and reduce $3 of spending for every dollar of tax increase.
And with Moody’s threatening to downgrade the nation’s debt if the debt limit isn’t raised soon, Republicans appear all the more radical.
So will Barack Obama pull a Bill Clinton? His real problem is one Mr. Clinton didn’t have to contend with: a continuing terrible economy. The recession in 1991-92 was relatively mild, and by the spring of 1995, the economy was averaging 200,000 new jobs per month. By early 1996, it was roaring—with 434,000 new jobs added in February alone.
Robert Reich is Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley. He has served in three national administrations, most recently as secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton. He has written eleven books, including The Work of Nations, which has been translated into 22 languages; the best-sellers The Future of Success and Locked in the Cabinet, and his most recent book, Supercapitalism. His articles have appeared in the New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal. Mr. Reich is co-founding editor of The American Prospect magazine. His weekly commentaries on public radio’s "Marketplace" are heard by nearly five million people.
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