Clinton, Obama, What’s the Difference?

If we’re really staring down the prospect of having a Clinton/Obama/Clinton Democratic succession in the White House, it might pay to think about how these two political empires relate to each other. That’s what Steven Waldman tries to do in a brief piece in the latest issue of the Washington Monthly. Waldman argues that the two political clans have been good for each other. More controversially, he argues that there’s a misperception that Bill Clinton was the ‘canny pol’ while Obama is the visionary, when nearly the opposite is the case. In Waldman’s view, Obama should be seen as fulfilling Clinton’s vision and completing projects than Clinton and his wife could not.

It’s a testament to how much Clinton changed the Democratic Party that even a conventional progressive like Obama ended up being “New Democrat” on most issues.

Conversely, Obama completed and expanded on the Clinton presidency in key ways. The most obvious is passing health care when Clinton couldn’t. That’s a big what-Joe-Biden-said. There’s more: Clinton started a modest-sized “direct lending” program that allowed college students to borrow straight from the government, bypassing banks; Obama got the banks out entirely, saving taxpayers billions in the process. Clinton proposed raising fuel efficiency standards for cars from 27.5 mpg to 40. He failed. Obama has successfully raised them, with a target of 55 mpg by 2015. Clinton moved the military from being actively hostile to gays to the milder-but-problematic policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell”; Obama allowed gays to openly serve.

One can debate the extent to which these achievements happened because of Obama’s skills or his timing.

I could nitpick this in a number of ways, but parts of it are undeniable. I think it’s an important debate to have because I don’t think we’re really sure how to think about Clintonism. How much of it was purely situational and designed to win elections in an environment where conservatism was ascendant? How much of it was a true ideological break with post-war liberalism? And where will a Hillary Clinton presidency fall on these spectrums?

To really engage in this debate, you’ll want to read Waldman’s whole argument.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.