Triangulation looks to be a tougher route for Obama than Clinton

Jon Ward Contributor
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President Obama’s effort to replicate President Bill Clinton’s presidency-saving first-term triangulation has begun, now that he has agreed to extend the Bush tax cuts for all brackets and has reached a free trade agreement with South Korea.

Here are four factors that will play a big role in whether Obama is successful in his attempt to move closer to the middle and regain the support of independents. All four factors indicate that this is going to be a very difficult task for the president.

1. High unemployment isn’t going away anytime soon.

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke’s comment Sunday evening on “60 Minutes” – he said it “could be four, five years before we are back to a more normal unemployment rate” – was just the latest alarm bell to ring on the number one issue that will influence Obama’s reelection chances. Bottom line: if the unemployment rate doesn’t move dramatically downward from its current 9.8 percent mark, Obama is in real trouble. And current projections for gross domestic product don’t show growth occurring at anywhere near the rate needed to do that. There is also the threat of a debt crisis similar to ones experienced by Greece and Ireland if the U.S. government’s creditors don’t see real action occurring soon to bring down deficits and the national debt. The anemic growth rate is the reason Obama made the concessions he did on the Bush tax cuts Monday, and the debt threat is the reason that the proposal put forward by Obama’s debt commission last week garnered a fair amount of bipartisan support.

Nonetheless, the economic environment and trend line during Clinton’s third and fourth years could not be more different, and more positive, than Obama’s looks to be. The unemployment rate in January 1995 was 6.7 percent, and by July it had dropped a full point, to 5.7 percent. It went even lower during the 1996 presidential election, hitting 5.1 percent in August 1996 before bumping up to 5.4 percent in November.

2. The liberal base – already seething – is far more empowered by technology than in Clinton’s day.

Clinton governed before technology gave grassroots activists on both sides a massive megaphone. Now, the blogosphere, Twitter, and the rise of grassroots organizing groups such as MoveOn.Org, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, and many others have put a Democratic president’s most liberal supporters right in the middle of the game. Mary Matalin, a former adviser to President George W. Bush, said Obama is “encumbered by a much more aggressive, abusive and media savvy grassroots liberal albatross than Clinton had to deal with.”

And they are hopping mad. Obama’s “capitulation,” as many liberals see it, to Republicans on extending the Bush tax cuts for all income levels provoked a new level of animosity from a base that has been growing disenfranchised since the first few months of his presidency with a man they put on a very high pedestal. In the last week, Obama’s decision to freeze pay for most federal workers for two years, followed by the tax cut compromise announced Monday evening, have enraged liberal progressives. Though it remains a fantasy for now, talk of a primary challenge to Obama in 2012 grew louder Monday. “President Obama has shown a complete refusal to fight Republicans throughout his presidency even when the public is on his side — and millions of his former supporters are now growing disappointed and infuriated by this refusal to fight,” said Adam Green, with the PCCC.

Paul Begala, a former adviser to President Bill Clinton and a representative of the Democratic establishment, also expressed great displeasure with Obama’s move on tax cuts: “I never liked triangulation much, but at least we occasionally got something from it. The key, I think, for President Clinton was knowing when to compromise and when to stand firm. So he compromised on welfare reform, for example, but held firm on massive cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, education and the environment,” Begala said. “If President Obama caves on borrowing $700 billion from the Chinese to give a bonus tax cut on income over $250,000 a year, what will he stand firm on? This is the top GOP economic objective, and it appears they may achieve it before they even take power.”

3. Some Republicans are very eager to provide a stark contrast to Obama on health care and entitlements.

This, of course, is one that could go either way, since entitlements are a political land mine of unparalleled explosiveness. But Rep. Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin Republican who is set to head up the House Budget Committee in January, said last week that he is eager to include large portions of his comprehensive plan for making the U.S. government solvent – the “Road Map” – in his budget proposal. If most of the “Road Map” were included in the budget, and a corresponding proposal to move to a voucher system for Medicare were added by the House Ways and Means Committee, a GOP-controlled House could end up passing a near-total alternative to Obama’s health care plan. Though it would likely stall in the Senate, and ultimately face a sure veto threat from Obama, it would be a big step beyond the more backward-looking talk of repealing Obamacare, and a bold counter move.

Ryan said he doesn’t know yet if he has the support of the GOP leadership for such a maneuver, but was clear that he wants a fight on the merits. “This is a time where I think instead of muddling the differences, philosophically speaking, between the two parties, we need to accentuate them, not in a mean and sinister way, but in a constructive way to give the country a real clear choice,” Ryan said. “We will be choosing what kind of future we want to have for the rest of this century in the very near future in this country, probably in 2012. So I believe we owe it to the country to give them an alternative choice than the path we’re on right now.”

Ryan’s plan has already been the subject of many election-cycle attack ads in the past year, and it’s very possible that a plan like his could lose in the bare-knuckled arena of political combat. But if voters remain sour on Obama’s health plan, a stark contrast that provides a tangible path to solving the country’s unfunded liabilities problem could be a winning ticket.

4. Obama still has the regulatory route available to him.

For all the talk of bipartisan cooperation, many observers expect Obama to keep going with the unilateral and ideological approach that characterized most of his first two years in office. The loss of the House doesn’t mean he will be stymied, because he has many options left to him through regulations embedded in the health and financial reform bills, the regulatory powers in the federal agencies, and his executive authority powers. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, in fact, is beefing up its efforts to work against Obama’s regulatory powers, much of it through public awareness campaigns.

If Obama does in fact continue to ramp up regulation and moves forward with implementing his health and financial reform bills, along with potential new labor rules and climate guidelines from the Environmental Protection Agency, that could counteract some of the progress he has been making to provide certainty for private sector capital with the compromise on tax cuts and the Korea trade deal. But it will be hard to resist doing so, in large part, Matalin said, because Obama is more of an ideologue than Clinton ever was. “Clinton was a centrist from a centrist, southern state, with authentic middle class values. His Third Way was authentic, his liberalism forced,” she said. “The opposite is true in Obama’s case.”

But Lanny Davis, a former White House special counsel to Clinton, disagreed with the notion that Obama was an ideologue. “President Obama, like former President Clinton, ran as a center-left pragmatic political leader who would rather make progress and pass incremental reform legislation than lose and glory in defeat because the good is worse than the perfect,” Davis said. “There are those in the Democratic Party and on what I call the ‘purist’ left who seem happier in defeat while standing for what they define as the perfect.”

“I congratulate President Obama for resisting these purist forces on the far left of the Democratic Party. It’s not ‘triangulation’ he is pursuing,” Davis said. “It’s change that actually happens that improves people’s lives through building consensus and compromising with Republicans.”

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