Obama Can't Play Center

Should Obama pull a Clinton? This has been a burning question inside the Beltway ever since the polls showed the Great Shellacking bearing down on the White House.

As most know by now, pulling a Clinton isn't anything kinky; it simply means moving to the center, or "triangulating" between the unpopular left and the unpopular right. That's what President Clinton did after the Democrats' historic drubbing at the polls in 1994, and it's what a lot of would-be sages argue President Obama must do now after the shellacking of 2010.

But the argument is deeply flawed for a few simple reasons: 2011 will be very different than 1995; the Republicans and the Democrats are different than they were then; and Obama is very, very different than Clinton.

Other than that the analogy is perfect.

And the GOP is not only determined not to repeat those mistakes, it is well positioned to avoid them. With Democrats controlling the Senate, it will be much harder for Obama to run against a do-nothing Congress.

Even outgoing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi concedes the political importance of the economy. In 1995, the economy was poised to take off like a rocket. Today, no one thinks the economy is about to perform in a way that would provide a glide path to reelection for Obama. If at the end of Obama's first term, near 10% unemployment is the "new normal," as Obama fretted recently on "60 Minutes," then his chances for reelection are bleak--so long as the GOP doesn't throw him a lifeline, the way it did Clinton in 1995-96.

And the GOP is not only determined not to repeat those mistakes, it is well positioned to avoid them. With Democrats controlling the Senate, it will be much harder for Obama to run against a do-nothing Congress.

As even Newt Gingrich has conceded, he made a lot of mistakes back then, chief among them acting as if the Republican Congress ran the country. No such cockiness has been on display from the GOP since election day. "This election wasn't about us" is a mantra repeated by every member of the leadership.

Moreover, the composition of Congress is very different today. As Ramesh Ponnuru notes in the current issue of National Review, in 1995 the GOP House majority was so narrow that Gingrich had a devil of a time balancing moderates and conservatives. "[John] Boehner's task will be easier," Ponnuru writes. "Republicans have the largest majority they have had since the 1940s. For the first time in the modern history of conservatism, the House has an outright conservative majority." Boehner has the wiggle room to let some Republicans off the hook for tough votes while still having enough left over to win passage.

Speaking of wiggle room, Clinton had the luxury of failure in 1995; Obama has the albatross of success. Because Hillarycare died without even a vote in Congress, Clinton had no major reform to defend. Obamacare is the law. The president cannot tack to the center and defend his signature accomplishment at the same time. Or, to be more precise, the GOP won't let him.

And even if the GOP were inclined to give Obama breathing room, the left isn't. It's much stronger today than it was 1995, and the activist core of today's Democratic Party sees itself as an antibody response to Clintonian triangulation. Pulling a Clinton would be seen as flat-out betrayal to Obama's biggest fans--and to an unapologetic Pelosi, who has decided to shrug off the election results as someone else's problem.

And even if the left were to give Obama room to maneuver, there's little reason to believe Obama could sell a change of heart. Clinton was a creature of Arkansas, and Ozark politics are just a tad more conservative than Hyde Park politics. Clinton is not only endowed with a preternatural gift for faking sincerity, he also had deep experience working across the aisle. Obama's smooth path to the presidency offered far fewer opportunities for political introspection and the flexibility that comes with it.

Whatever the motivation, Obama's response to his predicament has been more Pelosian than Clintonian. There's been less apologizing and more faculty lounge theorizing about voters too scared to know what's good for them. That doesn't suggest he's ready to reinvent himself.

By no means does this suggest that Obama has no path to reelection. But Clinton's map won't get him where he needs to go.

Jonah Goldberg is a visiting fellow at AEI.

Photo Credit: White House/Joyce N. Boghosian

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