Obama versus Clinton
At last week's DNC (as much as conservatives may hate to admit it), the most effective case for the re-election of Barak Obama was made by Bill Clinton. (I didn't say, "the most truthful case.") To paraphrase the former president: everything was great while I was president in the nineties; George Bush and the Republicans screwed it up in the 2000s. Now that things are slowly getting better, Romney wants to take us back to the bad old days of George Bush.
Many Americans buy this narrative, and I think it explains why despite poor recent economic numbers, Barack Obama remains ahead in the polls. Most Americans continue to hold George Bush responsible for the economic disaster which came at the end of his administration, and most Americans look to the nineties as the golden age of recent economic history. The question is whether President Obama believes this account of things.
The current president likes to say in his speeches something to the effect that things have been going wrong for decades. In an interview, he stated, "We didn't create the condition. We haven't solved it fully yet because it was three decades in the making." In his acceptance speech, the president said, "The truth is, it will take more than a few years for us to solve challenges that have built up over the decades."
He never quite spells out what he means by this. What has been going wrong for decades? And if we have been going in the wrong direction for decades, then what about the golden age of the nineties?
What President Obama has in mind is the turning point in modern American history that began with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. The era from FDR through Carter, including the Republican presidencies of Eisenhower, Nixon, and Ford, consisted of pushing forward the Progressive agenda -- most aggressively, of course, under Democratic presidents Roosevelt and Johnson, but not particularly set back by the years of Republican leadership.
Then came Ronald Reagan. Reagan was the first president to change the agenda drastically. Now government was the problem, not the solution. Now there was actually movement toward limiting the federal government and returning power to the states. Now taxes were actually lowered, and government spending was kept under some control. Reagan cut back regulations and fired striking air-traffic controllers. This was the beginning of a new era and the end of Progressivism's unchallenged hegemony.
The truth is that the nineties under President Bill Clinton did not in any significant way change that course. Yes, Clinton in the beginning did make some moves in a much more liberal direction. He famously tried to bring about his (or Hillary's) own version of a national health care program. On the liberal social agenda, he did make the controversial move of allowing gays to serve in the military under the "don't ask don't tell" policy. He did raise taxes moderately. But it was Bill Clinton who, in his 1996 State of the Union address, announced that "the era of big government is over." It certainly looked as if Ronald Reagan's sea change was still in effect. And, of course, although Clinton never reminds us, in addition to Reagan's economic policies, it was the peace dividend that Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush brought about that allowed the nineties to be such a period of prosperity. The point is that the Clinton years were in the big scheme of things a continuation of the Reagan era, not a break from it.
When President Obama talks about how we've been on the wrong path for decades, he means that the Progressive agenda which had advanced without hindrance from FDR through Johnson was abandoned in 1980 for an approach at smaller government, less regulation, and lower taxes. His goal is not to return us to the pre-financial crisis golden age; he wants to take us back to the real good old days, when government programs were being created and expanded one after another to solve every problem and make sure that none of us were "on our own." President Obama's goal is to continue pushing the Progressive agenda forward, to pick up where the seventies left off.
Bill Clinton was a liberal for sure, but he was also a practical politician who moved with the times and the polls. He was a "New Democrat" -- that is, a pro-business Democrat. It is interesting to note that Clinton's former chief of staff, Bill Daley, took over as Obama's chief of staff when Rahm Emanuel left to run for mayor of Chicago. (A nice arrangement, Daley moving from Illinois to Washington while Emanuel moved from Washington to Illinois.) But Daley, another moderate Democrat with strong business ties, lasted just one year in the Obama administration.
Clinton's endorsement of Barack Obama at the DNC, although brilliantly delivered, rings hollow, because Obama is not a New Democrat; he is an old Democrat, or more accurately, an old Progressive. He does not believe that the era of big government is over; he believes we're only at the beginning of a new era of even more centralized control of the economy, with expanding roles for all federal agencies to realize the changes he can't get Congress to legislate.