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Obama, Reagan, and Clinton

Which path will the president choose?

4:12 PM, Jan 27, 2010 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
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Obama, Reagan, and Clinton

Presidents Nixon, Reagan, Ford, and Carter in 1981

The consensus in Washington is that the Obama presidency is at a crossroads. His filibuster-proof Senate majority is gone. His approval rating is slightly below 50 percent. His agenda is stalled. The Republicans have all the momentum. His State of the Union address this evening will provide the first clues as to how the president will respond to adversity. You can read the Wall Street Journal's list of things to look for in the speech here. Elsewhere on the Journal's website, Naftali Bendavid draws parallels between Obama, Reagan, and Clinton.

Shorter Bendavid: Reagan and Clinton were their parties' most successful presidents in the postwar era. Both encountered challenges early in their first term. Each reacted differently. Reagan "continued to stress big themes, take on liberals, and present himself as a transformational figure, though he certainly worked with Democrats on occasion." Clinton, on the other hand, "focused on a series of modest initiatives for the remainder of his presidency, called “micro-initiatives” by his critics. Many of these involved executive actions that did not require the cooperation of a hostile Congress."

But are these paths truly divergent? Reagan governed from the center-right. The economy worsened in his first year in office due to Paul Volcker's monetary tightening, but Reagan understood such an approach was necessary to defeat inflation and set the economy on the path to recovery. Volcker's strategy, combined with Reagan's tax cuts and defense build-up, led to the 1980s boom.

Clinton spent his first two years governing from the center-left after he failed to win a majority of the popular vote. The recession was already over when he came into office. A string of foolish decisions, from Jocelyn Elders, to HillaryCare, to Don't Ask, Don't Tell, to the crime bill, to the BTU tax, combined with rising Republican power, produced the disastrous 1994 midterms. After that Clinton governed from the center-right. His major accomplishments in office include NAFTA and the WTO, welfare reform, a capital gains tax cut, and the bipartisan SCHIP legislation. He actually shrank government as a proportion of the economy--something Reagan was unable to do. This is the résumé of the most conservative Democratic president since Grover Cleveland. Not coincidentally, Clinton was also the first Democratic president since FDR to win reelection.

The commonality between Reagan and Clinton is that they governed from the center-right. Does Barack Obama show any signs of doing so? Indeed, would he ever want to do so? He has denigrated Clinton's presidency as a candidate and a president. He has said repeatedly that he would rather be a "successful one-term president," by which he means a president who shifts American politics decisively to the left, than a "mediocre two-term" one. He truly believes that his election closed the book on the Age of Reagan and began a new ideological era in American politics.

The events of the past year have shown that he is wrong. If he does not shift course domestically, Obama is setting himself up for failure. As Charles Krauthammer puts it, there is a third option: Obama could always be a "mediocre one-term" president who resembles the man on the right edge of the photograph above.

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