Friday, March 18, 2011

Why 2012, despite Barack Obama's fevered dreams, is not like 1996

More from that John Fund piece I quoted earlier:
President Obama has apparently decided to borrow some political plays from Bill Clinton, who after his party's defeat in the 1994 mid-term elections began running ads attacking Republican plans to reform Medicare. At the same time, Mr. Clinton focused on a series of granular policy initiatives—promoting school uniforms was one memorable example—that were politically safe and popular with independent voters. Mr. Obama appears to be following the same strategy—offering little in terms of policy substance, remaining disengaged in budget negotiations and waiting for Republicans to present a target for him to shoot at.
One can understand the Obama White House leaping to this analogy, grasping at it like a drowning man clutching at a life preserver. But the differences between the two situations are different enough that the comparison doesn't really work.

  1. Obamacare - Hillarycare was defeated, Obamacare passed. Bill Clinton didn't have a massive government program hanging over everyone's head, being fought over in the courts, causing costs to rise, and great difficulties for many, with benefits for few. Obamacare is a cudgel that the Republicans can, and will1, use against Obama in 2012 that they did not have against Clinton in 1996.
  2. The stimulus - Not only was the economy not terrible in 1996, it appeared to be better than it had been in 1992, that is, that "Clintonomics," however one wants to define that, was working. Obama is going to face re-election in an economy that's not only down, it will have been down significantly for his entire first term, with a massive increase to the debt that was supposed to have fixed it and in fact made it worse. (Even worse for him is that, in addition to making the economy worse, it appeared to make the economy worse. Politicians can get away with doing things that hurt the economy but appear to make it better or even things that help the economy while appearing to make it worse, but the stimulus failed on both counts.)
  3. The deficit - The Federal budget deficit was a problem in 1994, and helped the Republicans get elected, but it was an addressable problem at that point. Social Security was still a net positive (shouldn't have been, but that's the way they used it) and things were close enough to in control that two years of a Republican Congress could get it headed in the right direction on a reasonable trajectory. It's an order of magnitude worse now, and the problems with entitlements are now 18 years further along and more intractable. And the public awareness of it, and concern about it, has multiplied over that stretch, as millions of people "took to the streets" at Tea Party rallies to fight against Leviathan in Washington.
  4. Unemployment - Clinton took office as the Bush recovery was taking off, and it increased when the Republicans took over in 1994. When Americans went to the polls in November of 1994, the unemplyment rate was 5.4% and dropping. When they go to the polls in November of 2012, the optimistic projections are that it will be 7.7%.
  5. The Congressional opposition - In 1994, the Republicans took control of the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years. And they let it go to their heads. Newt Gingrich is a very smart guy, but he's bombastic and easily caricatured, and mis-read the extent of the "mandate" that the Republicans had. That's not the case this time. Boehner is a low-key adult. The leadership has idea men, but no bomb-throwers. And they have the historical perspective that wasn't available to Gingrich.
  6. The Presidential opposition - Bill Clinton ran against Bob Dole. Whoever gets nominated in 2012 is not going to be Bob Dole.
  7. The President - This is the big one. Bill Clinton was likable2, with a passionate need to be liked, warm, friendly and hands on. Barack Obama is historic, aloof, cold, distant and detached. Bill Clinton understood that, regardless of what he would have liked to do, philosophically, with the Presidency, he was going to be better liked, and re-elected, if the American people were happy with the economy and the country's situation. Barack Obama is intent on re-making the country. Clinton's reluctance to do big things abroad caused problems down the road, but he was hands on, and managed to keep big negative things from happening. Obama has allowed the narrative to take hold that he's utterly clueless about what's going on.
It's easy to understand why the White House would look to the 1996 election as a model for their 2012 re-election campaign. But it's also easy to see that that's a model that is unlikely - extremely unlikely - to work...

1 - This is the single biggest obstacle to a Romney presidency. And I'm a guy who likes Mitt, and thinks he may be just what we need in this situation. But if he doesn't completely disown Romneycare, "it was an experiment in the state, it was an attempt to do something, it failed miserably at the state level and is even worse at a national level," he'll never get out of the primaries.

2 - Not by everyone. I can't stand him. But by enough. And he certainly qualifies for the label "likable."

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