Bill Clinton had been president for just 78 days—it was April 7, 1993—and he was crimson with frustration. As recounted by Bob Woodward in The Agenda: Inside the Clinton White House, Clinton vented to his advisers: "'Where are all the Democrats?' Clinton bellowed. 'I hope you're all aware we're all Eisenhower Republicans,' he said, his voice dripping with sarcasm. 'We're all Eisenhower Republicans here, and we are fighting the Reagan Republicans. We stand for lower deficits and free trade and the bond market. Isn't that great?'"
Barack Obama, in the 13th month of his presidency, is learning what Clinton learned in his third month: The grinding arithmetic of economic and budgetary facts sets the parameters of political possibility. Candidate Obama rose to the presidency on gusts of gas: "We are the ones we've been waiting for." Today, with the economy still resembling a patient etherized upon a table, and with deficits causing voters' hair to stand on end, Obama is discovering his inner Eisenhower Republican.
Except that Ike never proposed anything as conservative as what Obama proposed last week: a three-year freeze of the approximately one eighth of the budget that is discretionary domestic spending. If Ike had proposed that, it would have been more momentous than Obama's idea because in the 1950s, before the multiplication and enrichment of entitlement programs, discretionary spending was a larger portion of domestic spending than it is today.
Nevertheless, what Obama proposes is large enough to enrage his party's liberal base: It elected him to stop the seas from rising, not to stop the red ink from rising. Obama worrying about deficits is not the change they want to believe in.
They should take a deep breath. His proposal is a gesture that would have minuscule consequences. Were it to happen—don't hold your breath; all this is in the subjunctive mood—a three-year freeze would result in $250 billion in savings over 10 years. And $25 billion a year is barely a rounding error (less than 3 percent) on the projected 10-year deficits of $9 trillion.
It took two years and the loss of 52 Democratic House seats in 1994 to compel Clinton to miniaturize his presidency. Like Lyndon Johnson, and Harry Truman before him, Clinton wanted to make his mark by enacting a health-care entitlement that would complete Franklin Roosevelt's project of binding all Americans to the central government with hoops of steel. Health care failed, and the remaining six years of his presidency produced headlines like CLINTON WILL ADVISE SCHOOLS ON UNIFORMS (The New York Times, Feb. 25, 1996) and CLINTON ANNOUNCES NEW CHILD SEAT RULES (Feb. 28, 1999).
It took just 13 months and the loss of one Senate seat to cause Obama to decide that the state of the Union would be improved by faux frugality. Yet Obama continues to engage in grating overstatements, such as this when speaking to ABC's Diane Sawyer about the health-care bill: "Every health economist out there who's serious about this stuff will tell you it's a vast improvement over the status quo." That is simply false—unless it is tautological. Unless health economists who are unenthralled are, by definition, unserious. Tautologies are, however, vacuous. And repeated assertions that particular topics (e.g., climate change) are no longer debatable corrode confidence in the administration.
Furthermore, Obama, a former lecturer in constitutional law, continues to say things that reveal an astonishingly inflated sense of his place in our complex constitutional order. To Sawyer he also said: "There's a legislative process that is taking place in Congress, and I am happy to own up to the fact that I have not changed Congress and how it operates the way I would have liked." No one, at least no one who has passed a high-school civics class, thinks Obama was elected to change Congress's operations. Who was the last president who did change them? Presidents come and go; Congress, with its distinctive culture—two cultures, actually—and institutional pride, abides.
Woodward's report of Clinton's April 7, 1993, tantrum continues: "His voice dropped. Clinton said he would bow to the political reality and delay health care, but only for two weeks, and he didn't like it one bit… 'At least we'll have health care to give them, if we can't give them anything else.'" That was 877 weeks ago.