Rahm Emanuel's exit from the White House on Friday brings the Obama presidency to a critical crossroads.
“Obama May Have to Triangulate Like Clinton If His Party Loses U.S. House,” announced a headline last week on Bloomberg.com. Expect to hear a lot of this between now and 2011, and don’t pay it much heed. It’s unlikely Obama will respond to Democratic losses by triangulating. More likely, he’ll go left.
When presidents get into trouble, they often try to recapture the magic that got them elected in the first place. For Clinton, that meant distancing himself from the left. He began his presidential bid, let’s remember, as head of the Democratic Leadership Council, a group that spent the late 1980s and early 1990s at war with the party’s liberal base. And while he flirted with economic populism, what distinguished Clinton from prior Democratic candidates was his aggressive coopting of conservative themes. He promised to cut middle-class taxes, which was back then a transgressive thing for a Democrat to do; he promised to “end welfare as we know it”; he attacked President George H.W. Bush from the right on China and Bosnia; he said abortion should be “safe, legal and rare” and he flew back to Arkansas to oversee the execution of Ricky Ray Rector, a man so mentally retarded that during his last meal he asked guards to hold his pecan pie so he could eat it later.
Clinton triangulated after the 1994 midterms because he believed America was a center-right nation. I don’t think Barack Obama believes that.
But during his first two years in office, Clinton’s image changed. He passed the North American Free Trade Agreement and prioritized deficit reduction over stimulus, which delighted Wall Street, but outside of fiscal and trade policy, he acted like a typical liberal Democrat. He alienated rural voters by pushing gun control, alienated the military by pushing for gay rights, and alienated his centrist supporters by prioritizing health-care reform over welfare reform.
So it’s not surprising that when Republicans clobbered him in the 1994 midterm elections, Clinton decided that his mistake was that he hadn’t governed like he had campaigned. He brought in Dick Morris, who had helped him move right in Arkansas after losing his first reelection bid as governor, and Morris engineered the triangulation strategy, which was largely a return to the DLC agenda on which Clinton had campaigned in the first place.
For Obama, the pattern is largely the reverse. He won the Democratic nomination by running against triangulation. Liberals felt they could trust him because unlike Hillary Clinton and John Edwards, he had ignored the centrist consultants who urged prominent Democrats to back the war in Iraq. (Significantly, Obama kept his distance from the DLC during his brief stint in the Senate). And the campaign really turned in his favor during an October 2007 debate in which Clinton refused to give a straight answer on driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants, thus confirming Democratic voters’ suspicions that she was too politically cautious to take a stand. To be sure, Obama emphasized his ability to bring Americans together across party lines. But unlike Clinton, he didn’t actually adopt center-right policies on cultural issues. He never engineered a Sister Souljah moment. And, unlike Clinton, he didn’t run against big government. To the contrary, he beat John McCain in part by tying him to the deregulatory policies that had caused the financial crash.
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• Full coverage of Rahm Emanuel and His ExitIf Clinton ran as a centrist but governed largely as a liberal, Obama’s behavior has been closer to the reverse. He stocked his domestic- and foreign-policy teams with Clinton (and even Bush) administration veterans like Emanuel, Larry Summers, Robert Gates, and Hillary Clinton herself. He reneged on his pledge to close Guantanamo Bay and pursued a foreign policy guided largely by the axioms of the Clintonite foreign-policy establishment. And in domestic policy, he worked mightily to entice moderate Republicans to back his legislative agenda: putting more tax cuts in his economic stimulus package than liberal economists thought wise and adopting many of Charles Grassley and Mitt Romney’s ideas on health care.
When Obama looks back on his first two years, he will likely see his decision to push health care through on a party-line vote—a move Emanuel reportedly opposed—as his greatest triumph. And he will likely see his greatest failure as his inability to push through a more effective stimulus and to harness the populist anger bred by the financial crisis. In other words, he’s likely to think that his greatest success came when he ignored the Dick Morris playbook and his greatest failures were the result of excessive bipartisanship and an overly cozy relationship with Wall Street.
My guess is that with powerful Clinton administration veterans like Summers and Emanuel gone, Obama will try to recapture the anti-establishment mojo he had in his 2008 campaign, and that rather than tacking right, he’ll try to reconnect with his liberal base by demonizing the newly empowered congressional Republicans. His decision to pick a fight on the Bush tax cuts and to personally attack House Republican leader John Boehner suggests that he’s seeking to shape the coming partisan brawl, not avoid it. That shouldn’t come as a surprise. Barack Obama has no Dick Morris in his past, and his longtime advisers from Chicago, David Axelrod and Valerie Jarrett, whose influence will only grow with Emanuel and Summers gone, have nothing like Morris’ ideological ambidexterity.
Fundamentally, Bill Clinton triangulated after the 1994 midterms because he believed America was a center-right nation. I don’t think Barack Obama believes that, which is why he won’t triangulate. By the fall of 2012, we should know if he was right.
Peter Beinart, senior political writer for The Daily Beast, is associate professor of journalism and political science at City University of New York and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. His new book, The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris, is now available from HarperCollins. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.