I never thought I’d long for the days when Bill Clinton was president, but Barack Obama‘s arrogance and lack of political savvy has pushed me to that point. These past days, during which the Congress and the White House have engaged in a game of budgetary brinksmanship, have made clear Obama possesses neither the willingness nor the ability to negotiate in good faith like his Democratic predecessor. Obama is no Bill Clinton; and the country is the worse for it.
During the winter of 1995-1996, when Newt Gingrich was speaker and Bill Clinton president, and the two branches faced off in a major—indeed, historic—budget battle, we had a chief executive who understood the practice of politics was not a zero-sum game. Both of these men—Clinton and Gingrich—knew that each side needed to play to their base and press for every advantage they could; but that at the end of the day, at the end of the bout, agreement must be reached for the good of the country and both sides could then claim victory. Both leaders understood what master politician Ronald Reagan practiced so well: There is no limit to what a man can accomplish so long as he doesn’t care who gets credit for it.
Certainly the circumstances in which that budget battle nearly a generation ago was waged were different from today’s. But the similarities are even more relevant. Then, as now, the country was deeply—almost evenly—divided along partisan fault lines. And, as today, the congressional Republican caucuses (especially in the House) were just as deeply divided. Gingrich’s difficulties in forging a working consensus within his rowdy group of members—including a large contingent of conservative freshmen, of which I was a member—were no less problematic than John Boehner’s situation today. The Democrats enjoyed in the mid-1990s the implicit allegiance of much of the mainstream media just as they do now. Finally, the power of the presidential Bully Pulpit was every bit as powerful a cudgel then as now.
Yet, somehow, agreement was forged, and the foundation was laid for an historic balanced budget less than two years later in the Balanced Budget and Welfare Reform Act of 1997. The key element present then but absent now, was a president willing and able to see beyond the disagreements, to a compromise that would leave he nation in a better place even as it aided both his and the opposition’s fortunes. And even as the leaders of both sides presented to the public faces of intransigence, behind the scenes, Clinton was willing to negotiate; it was a process he loved but which Obama appears to disdain.
For its part, today’s House Republican majority has indeed delivered to the president options, ranging from an outright defunding of the president’s beloved Affordable Care Act to a one-year delay in funding (a proposal clearly consistent with steps the White House has already taken to delay implementation of key parts of that legislation). Yet, rather than accept such a proposal and declare victory, Obama and his dour Senate leader, Harry Reid, have refused even to talk with Boehner and the GOP House majority. The ghosts of both Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill must be shaking their heads in disappointment.
Polling played a key role in both sides’ calculations in the winter of ’95-’96. In our Republican caucus, we were presented daily results of overnight polling, enabling us to gauge the ups and downs of the voters’ views of the “government shut down.” The Clinton White House conducted its own polling, which enabled Clinton to thrust and parry with consummate skill. In the end, after three weeks of votes and vetoes, the Republican-dominated Congress sent to the president a budget bill he agreed to sign—and for which he claimed victory. Importantly, the lessons learned by both sides in that messy process laid the groundwork for the months of ultimately successful budget skirmishes that followed.
It can be done; but it takes a degree of skill and savvy thus far absent from this president’s repertoire. Hopefully, such proficiency will somehow be discovered by Team Obama; and hopefully it will happen before the truly critical vote on the debt ceiling arrives in two weeks.