The Clinton resurrection of 1995 and 1996 is, of course, cited ad infinitum and ad nauseam as a precedent for what Obama is attempting to pull off now. And the parallels are plain: the refurbishment of the White House staff, the efforts to stake out a place apart from and above the linthead extremes in both parties. On the critical question of how to deal with the GOP, too, Obama is likely to adopt a Clintonian posture: cooperate when possible, confront when necessary, and exploit Republican overreaching.
In truth, Obama is in some ways—his strong and climbing poll ratings, the weakness of the nascent Republican presidential field—in a stronger position than Clinton was at the same point in his first term. But in two respects of gargantuan importance, Clinton was better off: He had a persuasive economic narrative that he had been honing and hammering for years, and a real economy over which he was presiding that was on the brink of a historic boom.
Obama has neither. When it comes to the latter, the president’s ability to effect improvement is severely constrained. And when it comes to the former, Obama continues to search somewhat haltingly for a set of themes that resonate. Early in December, in a speech in North Carolina, the president declared that America was facing “our generation’s Sputnik moment,” in which we had to double down on investments in education, innovation, and infrastructure or risk falling dangerously behind our foreign rivals, China in particular. Because it came at the height of the frenzy over the tax-cut deal, no one paid the speech much attention. Expect to hear echoes of it in the State of the Union and beyond.
But Obama, unlike Clinton, was not elected on the potency of his economic platform or his economic wordplay. He was elected on a more amorphous set of promises—and the disjuncture between them and the ensuing reality has been and remains his biggest problem. “The president didn’t get a huge chunk of the vote to do health-care reform or do a stimulus package or financial reform or all the rest of it,” says one of the grandees who met with Obama after the midterms. “The reason people voted for him was to change Washington. And he accomplished the subcategories in a way that made Washington even more toxic and polarized.”
For Obama, the next two years will in part be about attempting to lower the temperature, to leach the toxins from the system. And in that pursuit, divided government might, paradoxically, prove to be his friend. Having achieved so much in the past two years, much of Obama’s agenda now is to protect those accomplishments—both in the short term and in the long term, by winning reelection—and playing defense is inherently less provocative than playing offense. And the areas in which Obama will take the initiative are ones where common ground may well exist with the opposition: curbing the deficit, education reform, free trade, and possibly tax reform.
Will Republicans cooperate? Perhaps, perhaps not, but that may be beside the point. “In the first two years, controlling both houses of Congress and having the White House meant there was little to no responsibility that was required of the other party—so people compared us to ourselves, or to the perfect, and you always lose that argument,” says Gibbs. “Now there’ll be some ability to compare where each entity wants to take the country, and that will shape in a finer way the values and visions of all those involved. The president’s going to get out of town a lot. The president’s going to tell a story and show the country what he’s doing, why he’s doing it, and where we want to go—rather than just dealing with Monday’s or Tuesday’s or Wednesday’s problem.”
Nowhere in the Constitution is the spinning of yarns enumerated as a responsibility of the president of the United States. Yet the most successful of them in our recent history—Roosevelt, Reagan, Clinton—were all masters of the art. For a variety of reasons, Obama lost his storyteller’s touch, and also his connection to what made so many vest so much hope in him to begin with: his apparent capacity to lift the country up and calm it down at the same time. Has he figured out how to reclaim that brand of mojo? Not yet, not fully. But at least he understands he must, which is a start. “It’s kind of like with a 12-step program,” says the grandee. “Before you can begin fixing your life, you have to admit you have a problem.”