Obamacare’s rollout is driving Americans to the right, but it could shift Obama to the left. Seventeen years ago, when confronted with a health care setback and united Republican opposition, Bill Clinton moved to the right to compensate. Obama, now facing similar circumstances, could be expected to act pragmatically and do likewise. However, the opposite outcome is more likely and the resulting threat to Democrats even greater.
In his first term, Clinton’s failed health care overhaul and successful large tax hike left him vulnerable to a conservative backlash. It came in 1994 and not only remained, but intensified. Facing an aggressive and united Republican Congress, Clinton confronted a defining policy battle over welfare reform during his 1996 reelection bid.
Although twice vetoing proposals, he finally signed sweeping welfare reform. That alienated liberals, but it solidified the center of Clinton’s support, and he won reelection convincingly.
Obama now could be expected to follow his pragmatic predecessor’s successful course. Clinton’s healthcare reform attempt failed; Obama’s made it into law, but now it appears to be failing in implementation. So the two presidents arrived by separate routes to similar places.
The political logic that inspired Clinton to go right and undercut conservative opposition to sustain his presidency could apply now too. Obama could cut his losses, take his lumps, and retain parts of Obamacare, while protecting his presidency for its three remaining years. However, there is good reason to believe Democrats may find Obama shifting in the opposite direction.
One reason is this: 2014 is not 1996. In 1996, Clinton was facing reelection and battling for his political life. Obama has already won reelection. Never facing voters again, Obama has no political stake in changing positions, as Clinton did.
Another reason is that 2010 was not 1994. In 1994, Clinton lost both bodies of Congress and endured united opposition for two years. Because of a Democratic Senate, nothing like the welfare reform repeatedly thrust at Clinton has confronted Obama. Also, Clinton’s loss of Congress was something almost unthinkable – occurring for the first time in four decades. For Obama, the 2010 loss of the House was a return to what prevailed in six of the previous eight Congresses.
The third reason is that Obama is not Clinton. Compromise with conservatives was in Clinton’s political DNA. For an Arkansas governor, it was a fact of life – even if those conservatives were themselves Democrats. Heading into 1996, Clinton had already made a conscientious effort to do this.
Compromise with conservatives is decidedly not in Obama’s political DNA. He has never had to, prior to his presidency, and clearly hopes he will not have to do it beyond 2014. Clinton had no prospect of retaking Congress in 1996; his thoughts were merely on retaining the White House.
Even since confronting a Republican House for almost three years, Obama has shown no particular interest in compromising with conservatives. There are no statements similar to Clinton’s declaration that “the era of big government is over” or that he thought he had raised taxes too much. And regarding the undeniably big government initiative of Obamacare, this administration has shown no hint of fundamental retreat.
Compromise with an enemy comes from two postures: a position of strength, or a position of necessity. Clinton was decidedly in the latter. Obama does not appear to be in either – for the moment.
It is this realization that may be most troubling to Democrats in Congress. While Obama will not be on the ballot in 2014, for the most part they will be. Even though Obama may not be in a mood to move, the electorate – if it continues in its current mood – is likely to be.
Even if Obama does not consciously move left to shore up his base, simply staying in the same place could leave his party well to the electorate’s left. Either way, the result is the same and would leave Democrats in a precarious position.
Clinton knew that when he moved to the right in 1996, upset liberals had no alternative but to stay with him – they were certainly not going to go with Gingrich conservatives.
If the president holds out, Democrats are presented with a difficult choice. Should they try to fix Obamacare without Obama’s support, they risk losing liberals they still need in order to win elections. If they stick with a president determined to protect Obamacare at all costs – as he has thus far shown he would – they risk losing moderate and independent voters, who they need just as much to win elections.
In 1996, to liberals’ chagrin, they faced a moving Democratic president with no alternative but to move with him. Today, to Democrats’ consternation, they fear a moving electorate but an unmoving Democratic president – and a choice between the two.
J.T. Young served in the Treasury Department and the Office of Management and Budget from 2001 to 2004 and as a Congressional staff member from 1987 to 2000.