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Hints of past presidents

Posted: Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Barack Obama’s re-election recipe combines a heap of Clinton centrism with a dash of Reagan optimism.

His State of the Union speech — in essence, the opening salvo of the ‘12 election cycle — signaled the strategy. I heard so many echoes of Bill Clinton, circa 1995 and 1996, that it felt like time travel. It made me want to watch “Seinfeld” and dance the Macarena.

After Clinton’s party was shellacked in the ‘94 midterms, he muted his most liberal ambitions and moved to the middle. In the parlance of the time, he “triangulated,” working with Republicans as well as Democrats, without being hostage to either camp. He successfully seized the center by stressing modest, nonpartisan issues — while suggesting that his conservative foes were prisoners of their ideology.

Obama 2.0 is strikingly similar. Let us count the ways.

In his address the other night, Obama called for “a government that’s more competent and efficient.” And here’s Clinton, in his ‘96 State of the Union speech, calling for “a government that works better and costs less.”

Obama said that the federal government needs to be modernized for the information age; in his words, “We cannot win the future with a government of the past.” And here’s Clinton, in 1996: “Our job is to get rid of yesterday’s government so that our own people can meet today’s and tomorrow’s needs. And we ought to do it together. We have to cut yesterday’s government to help solve tomorrow’s problems.”

Obama said that government education programs are no substitute for good parenting; as he argued, “That responsibility begins not in our classrooms, but in our homes and communities. It’s family that first instills the love of learning in a child. Only parents can make sure the TV is turned off and homework gets done.” And here’s Clinton, in 1996: “I challenge our parents to become their children’s first teachers. Turn off the TV. See that homework is done.”

Obama asked Congress to “make permanent our tuition tax credit — worth $10,000 for four years of college.” And here’s Clinton in 1996: “I challenge Congress to make up to $10,000 a year of college tuition deductible.”

Obama said, “When we find rules that put an unnecessary burden on businesses, we will fix them. But I will not hesitate to create or enforce commonsense safeguards to protect the American people. That’s what we’ve done in this country for more than a century. It’s why our food is safe to eat, our water is safe to drink, and our air is safe to breathe.” And here’s Clinton, in 1995: “I applaud your desire to get rid of costly and unnecessary regulations. But when we deregulate, let’s remember what national action in the national interest has given us — safer food for our families, safer toys for our children, safer nursing homes for our parents, safer cars and highways, and safer workplaces, cleaner air, and cleaner water.”

Obama acknowledged the need to cut programs and trim the deficit, “but let’s make sure that we’re not doing it on the backs of our most vulnerable citizens.” And here’s Clinton, in 1995: “Should we cut the deficit more? Well, of course we should” — as long as the trimming “does not unduly punish people who should not be punished.”

But to really connect with swing-voting independents (the key audience), and perhaps to further dispel the “socialist” canard, Obama needed to spin a folksy anecdote about government waste. Hence this passage: “There are 12 different agencies that deal with exports. There are at least five different agencies that deal with housing policy. Then there’s my favorite example. The Interior Department is in charge of salmon while they’re in fresh water, but the Commerce Department handles them when they’re in saltwater. I hear it gets even more complicated once they’re smoked.”

Care to guess whom that sounds like? Americans of a certain age — me, for instance — can easily conjure the Gipper, framing that salmon story as an affable metaphor for big government. Indeed, the White House has deliberately telegraphed its intent to channel the Great Communicator; over the holiday break, press secretary Robert Gibbs tweeted that his boss was reading a Reagan biography.

On State of the Union night, Obama’s insistence that “the best thing we could do on taxes for all Americans is to simplify the individual tax code” was vintage Reagan. And one particular passage about federal red ink — “Every day, families sacrifice to live within their means. They deserve a government that does the same” — harked back to the 1981 Inaugural, when Reagan vowed “to get government back within its means.”

It can even be argued that Obama’s current plea for cross-party cooperation (“governing will now be a shared responsibility”) draws from the Reagan playbook. After all, Reagan’s party took heavy losses in the ‘82 midterms, and his job-approval rating in that recessionary winter (37 percent) was far lower than Obama’s rating today. Here was Reagan, in his ‘83 State of the Union speech: “Let us, in these next two years — men and women of both parties, every political shade — concentrate on the long-range, bipartisan responsibilities of government, not the short-range or short-term temptations of partisan politics.” Care to guess whom that sounds like?

But when you’re conjuring Reagan, the music matters more than the lyrics. Reagan was irrepressibly sunny, bursting with confidence about America. Voters prefer that their leaders be upbeat; personality is arguably as important as policy. Obama’s line the other night about how we will “reach that better place beyond the horizon” was in the spirit of Reagan’s “shining city on a hill,” and clearly he hopes to lure voters with a vision of better days — in contrast to the Republican warnings of doomsday.

Most presidents, especially in tough times, tend to borrow from their predecessors. The house they live in is haunted; it seems natural to listen for the echoes. There’s no guarantee, of course, that Obama can win a new lease by channeling Clinton and Reagan — joblessness may persist, foreign crises may intrude — and it’s facile to assume that the past is prologue. But a sunny guy on center ground won’t be so easy to beat.

• Polman is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.



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