Clinton’s Third Term

The cover story in this issue, by yours truly, argues that Barack Obama has accomplished so much in his first term (health care reform, the stimulus, turning around Detroit—the list is long, and starts here) that he stands to go down in history as a great or near-great president. But it also notes that most Americans don’t see him that way, and hence might not be inclined to give him the second term he needs to secure that legacy in the eyes of history.

There are numerous reasons for this disconnect between Obama’s deeds and reputation. A big one, certainly, is his failure to make good on his campaign promise to “change Washington.”

Different audiences have different ideas about what this promise entailed. Moderates and independents hoped it meant overcoming the partisan bickering and petty gamesmanship in Washington; those on the left hoped it meant a new era of FDR-like liberalism. In either case, Obama didn’t or couldn’t bring it off, and people are disappointed.

Indeed, a case can be made that what he delivered was not change in this sense at all but a kind of continuity—a third Clinton term. As everyone knows, the architects of his economic policy, Larry Summers, Tim Geithner, and Peter Orszag, are all ex-Clinton guys. The fact that Obama hired them and followed their advice is the chief complaint of many liberals about the president. I argue in the article that the administration’s economic policies are more effective than the critics contend. But the point stands that those policies are fundamentally Clintonesque.

The Clinton stamp is in fact all over Obama’s presidency. All three of his chiefs of staff—Rahm Emanuel, Bill Daley, Jack Lew—served in the Clinton administration, as did both of Joe Biden’s (Ron Klain, Bruce Reed). One of Clinton’s former chiefs of staff, Leon Panetta, is now Obama’s defense secretary.

Look deeper into the bureaucracy, too, and you’ll see the Clinton imprint. One of Obama’s biggest education achievements to date is kicking banks out of the college loan program and providing students loans directly from the federal government. The policy will save $67 billion over the next decade, $36 billion of which will fund expanded Pell Grants. The person who led this effort is Obama’s former deputy undersecretary of education Robert Shireman. But it was Clinton who created the direct lending program itself, with the help of a young White House aide, Robert Shireman.

Obama’s biggest achievement in national service, which he said during the campaign would be “a cause of my presidency,” was signing a bill to triple AmeriCorps. But AmeriCorps, of course, was started by Clinton, and the current head of the program, John Gomperts, was chief of staff in the Clinton administration to Harris Wofford, the head of the Corporation for National and Community Service, which oversees AmeriCorps.

Some of Obama’s most impressive and original achievements have been in the foreign policy realm (killing bin Laden, pivoting toward Asia). But his agenda has obviously been implemented and significantly influenced by Hillary Clinton. And arguably her finest moment as secretary of state, getting the administration behind and helping to craft the multinational effort that toppled Moammar Gaddafi, was a nearly exact replay of the model of international military-humanitarian intervention the Clinton administration came up with for Bosnia and repeated in Kosovo.

That the Obama administration has carried forth so much of Clinton’s personnel and policy DNA shouldn’t be surprising, because the truth is that Obama and Clinton are awfully similar. Both are meritocrats of modest birth whose political roots are on the left (Obama was a community organizer in Chicago, Clinton ran George McGovern’s presidential campaign in Texas) who, for reasons of political and programmatic pragmatism, embraced policies outside the traditional liberal framework. But it was Clinton who cleared this political space, fusing a certain economic populism and concern for the poor and minorities with neoliberal policy prescriptions and appeals to traditional values like respect for work and entrepreneurship to form a genuinely fresh approach that went by the New Democratic moniker. Obama has not much associated himself with that brand, but in practice he has governed by its principles.

Obama famously said in 2008 that his campaign could best be analogized to that of Ronald Reagan; the Gipper “changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not,” he said. But increasingly it looks as if Clinton was the one who changed the trajectory—and Obama is the one who has racked up the biggest substantive achievements along its path.

Paul Glastris

Paul Glastris is the editor in chief of the Washington Monthly.