President Clinton’s convention speech was a masterful display from arguably the greatest political athlete in decades. But one of the most powerful moments of the speech was not delivered in words — it occurred when President Obama walked onto the stage and the two presidents embraced. The message was obvious and powerful: Mr. Obama and Mr. Clinton are on the same team. They are fighting the same fight. They are the same type of leader, with the same vision and philosophy. It’s a nice sentiment, and it’s great politics. But it’s just not true in at least three very important respects. The two presidents differ significantly with respect to their political philosophy, their ability to control the growth of the national debt, and their ability to work with Republicans.
In his 1996 State of the Union address, President Clinton offered a vision of government that has never been far from the forefront of our political discourse:
“How do we make the American dream of opportunity for all a reality for all Americans who are willing to work for it? […] We know big government does not have all the answers,” continued Mr. Clinton. “We know there’s not a program for every problem. We have worked to give the American people a smaller, less bureaucratic government in Washington. And we have to give the American people one that lives within its means. The era of big government is over.”
We are hardly the first to point out that President Clinton sounded like a conservative during much of that speech. Of course, Mr. Clinton’s declaration that “the era of big government is over” usually gets most of the attention. And it is impossible to imagine President Obama saying something similar. (Perhaps this observation alone proves the point that the two presidents occupy fundamentally different philosophical and policy turf.) But the phrase “who are willing to work for it” strikes us as equally surprising.
According to President Clinton, the American dream should become a reality, but only for those Americans who are willing to roll up their sleeves and work for it. There is quite a bit of information in Mr. Clinton’s emphasis on individual responsibility. The vision of society offered by Mr. Clinton is one centered on the individual’s work ethic. In the Clintonian view of America, the American dream is something purchased by a willingness to work, not an entitlement guaranteed by citizenship.
Compare that to President Obama’s famous “you didn’t build that” speech. Again, we focus on a section of the speech that has received comparably little attention. Said Mr. Obama: “Look, if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own. You didn’t get there on your own. I’m always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart. There are a lot of smart people out there. It must be because I worked harder than everybody else. Let me tell you something — there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there.”
President Obama’s emphasis is completely different. In his view, the role of hard work (and of natural ability) is of much less consequence. Indeed, Mr. Obama marginalizes that role — he comes close to mocking people who choose, like President Clinton, to emphasize it.
So you have two presidents and two visions of American society. In the first, hard work is necessary to achieve the American dream. In the second, the idea that you can achieve success through hard work is almost mocked. Instead, success is presented as a combination of luck and a gift the successful receive from society.
President Clinton wanted to have a government “that lives within its means,” and due to a variety of factors he achieved that goal. President Obama shares responsibility for trillion-dollar annual deficits and one-third of our centuries-old national debt.
President Clinton faced a hostile and aggressive Republican Congress. And his capabilities as a political leader allowed him to find common ground with Republicans and get things done: free trade, welfare reform, and a balanced budget. (All distinctly right-leaning policies.) President Obama also faced a hostile and aggressive Republican Congress. And his capabilities as a political leader allowed him to … well, blame them for being hostile and aggressive.
Both presidents are firmly rooted in separate American traditions. Both traditions are worthy of respect, have millions of adherents, and are well-represented in American life. President Clinton is a moderate Democrat with many (Burkean) conservative views — views which argue that government policy should inculcate classical values (e.g., hard work) and good moral character in the citizens. President Obama is a turn-of-the-century progressive with communitarian views — views which marginalize the role of the individual and emphasize the role of society (improperly) understood as government. President Clinton shrunk the deficit dramatically, even past zero; President Obama increased it. President Clinton was an extraordinary political leader who managed to work with Republicans to get things done; President Obama, not so much.
Like him or not, President Obama is not Bill Clinton. That’s not an insult. It’s not a compliment. It’s a fact.
Michael R. Strain and Stan A. Veuger are research fellows at the American Enterprise Institute.