Presidential History

Change We Can Remember

Will Barack Obama be another Bill Clinton?

|

Barack Obama's campaign mantras were "change we need" and "change we can believe in." His victory, and the enthusiasm of his more ardent supporters, may suggest that Americans dream of doing what Thomas Paine proposed we do in 1776: "begin the world over again." In fact, underlying the vote is yearning to return to how things were before: before the Iraq war, before torture, before the housing bust, before the recession.

Also before George W. Bush, who has a way of reminding people why Bill Clinton, for all his wretched foibles, left office with a 65 percent approval rating. As Hillary Clinton was fond of saying of her husband's critics during this campaign: "What part of the 1990s didn't they like—the peace or the prosperity?"

Ronald Reagan came into office in 1980 assuming he had an electoral mandate to diminish the size of government. Once there, he found that Americans are a conservative people—in the sense of wanting to conserve what they have, especially any benefits they get from Washington. Result: The welfare state survived with little change. Obama may likewise discover that the appetite for new policies is smaller than it appears.

In his speeches, the candidate spent more time extolling the need for change than specifying exactly what form it should take. His calculated imprecision allowed voters to assume that the change he was offering was pretty much the same as the change they wanted.

As in 1980, Americans are enduring economic pain that makes them amenable to notions they might once have rejected. It's safe to assume that, like then, Americans are ready to experiment with moving in the direction the new president favors—in this case, toward a more activist government. But it's also safe to assume that 1) they are in no mood for drastic steps that require sacrifice on their part and 2) they will support new initiatives only if they, you know, work.

Obama, as it happens, won by offering voters the same thing Reagan promised: tax cuts. Most of those who supported him did so on the assumption that they would not fall in the class of people who will have to cough up more to the IRS.

Not only that, but many voted against McCain partly because Obama successfully branded his health-care program as a tax increase. Americans are willing to embrace a bigger and more expensive federal government on one condition: that it doesn't cost them anything.

In this respect, the president-elect promises a continuation of the last eight years. With the exception of the recession brought on by the financial crisis, the biggest challenge is a vast array of commitments that have outgrown our willingness to pay for them. Living within our means is not a change Americans can quite believe in. Like Bush, Obama may hope to escape two terms without taking action on that front.

Of course, Obama would not have been the obvious choice if the goal were preservation of the entire status quo. His promises to abandon President Bush's policies on Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, the treatment of enemy captives, health care, and wiretapping contributed greatly to his success.

The most notable change he will bring, though, is the most visible one: putting an African-American in the Oval Office. But that is in large part a validation of changes that have already occurred. It's no longer a novelty that some of our most admired public figures—Oprah Winfrey, Tiger Woods, Colin Powell, Denzel Washington—are black.

In this respect, the presidency is a lagging indicator of racial progress. But Obama's uniqueness will make it hard to portray him as moving too slowly to bring about change. His face alone will rebut the charge.

What his admirers and his enemies have in common is overestimating how much change he would, or can, bring about. Obama is an inspiring figure, but also a shrewd conventional politician who leaves the windmill-tilting to others. He is likely to resemble Bill Clinton, without the appetites and immaturity: a pragmatic incrementalist wary of being pulled too far left.

That would probably be fine with most voters, who may love the rhetoric of change but really miss the way things used to be.

COPYRIGHT 2008 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.

Advertisement

NEXT: Cut It Off

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Ok Chapman haters, start your engines!! I am ready to hear your bruising laments and vapid commentary – Chapman nails this, once again. Obama will be, in the bigger picture, a Clintonian pragmatist, surrounded by moderates that will convince him to bust the deficit and lower (most) taxes.

  2. Hopefully. And hopefully no stupid firearms bans but that one I’m not too hopeful about.

  3. It’s no longer a novelty that some of our most admired public figures-Oprah Winfrey, Tiger Woods, Colin Powell, Denzel Washington-are black.

    I find it interesting that you cite Tiger Woods here, a figure who has consistently and vocally denied the very category you put him in. He is always quick to mention his Chinese and caucasian heritage and to reject the assertion that race is a valid category. In this respect the comparison with Obama is actually quite apt since Obama himself transcends the stark racial categories of the older generation.

    In doing justice to Obama (and Tiger Woods) it might make sense to be careful not to reinforce the categories they are helping to break down.

  4. punk7

    The difference between Obama and Clinton, at least for the next 2 years, will be the Democrat majority congress. The balanced budget was forced by a Republican congress and the tax cuts were supported by that same congress…otherwise Clinton would never have done those things. Obama will not be limited by an opposition congress.

  5. It was a vote against Bush and recession.

    It was a vote for a young, charismatic guy with a nice smile and almost no experience.

    When all is said and done, what will the pundits name this new Camelot?

  6. A little educational survey…

    What govt. evil would it take for you to stop paying taxes in disgust?

    1. Govt. take your money and uses it to lock up innocent people.
    2. The govt. uses your money to lock up black people.
    3. The govt. uses your money to murder brown people.
    4. the govt. gives your tax money to their friends.
    5. the govt. wastes your money on something stupid, or maybe just burns it.
    6. the govt. spend your money on propaganda for higher taxes.
    7. The govt. spends your money on brainwashing babies to torture puppies.
    8. The govt. spends your money on researching about how the money really belongs to them.
    9. The govt. “invests” your money in a ponzi scheme.
    10. What taxes? I don’t pay any taxes!
    11. I own a bank, the govt. pays ME taxes.
    12. The govt. can do no evil, by definition all it does is good.
    13. I’m too scared not to obey, the govt. has the biggest guns.
    14. I can’t help it, they are in cahoots with my employer and withold it.
    15. I work for the govt. Taxes are the price you pay for civilization.
    16. Didn’t Jesus say I always had to pay taxes?
    17. I’ll keep paying, but vote for whoever promises to do less evil.

    (Etienne de la Boetie- discourse on voluntary servitude)

  7. 18. The govt. conscripts you during peacetime, for your own good.

    http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/bdquery/z?d108:H.R.163:

  8. What govt. evil would it take for you to stop paying taxes in disgust?

    Tax protester highjack! Ruuuun!

  9. Rahm Emanuel, John Podesta, Larry Summers. Expect everything we would have gotten with Hillary without the accountability she’d be held to. The Clinton’s fail-safe Edwards killer may actually make them richer than had Hillary won.

  10. 19. The govt. spends your money on recruiting more tax inspectors.

  11. 20. The govt. spends your money on cameras to make sure that you are behaving….

  12. 21. The govt. gives your money to a “libertarian” think tank.

  13. You mean Barack Obama isn’t our second black president?

  14. What sort of Presidency we will have will largely be the result of contingency.

  15. 22. They spend your tax money on building a casino/bar/brothel while simultaneously spending your money on banning gambling/alcohol/prostitution and spending money to build jails for the gamblers/drinkers/prostitutes

  16. Clearly, Obama’s win has brought the looney’s out of the bin.

  17. Voter,

    What’s the point? they can just print the money!

  18. please
    please stop running Steve Chapman
    *whimpers*

  19. Clinton also had the benefit of a relatively benign set of foreign relations issues.

  20. I have to go with n? 13
    not gonna stick my neck out

  21. I’d have to go with:

    25. My government schoolteacher taught me that not paying taxes IS EVIL!

  22. Are you kidding public schooled?

    At least in my high school, the teachers all played up non-violent resistance. Including not paying taxes.

  23. I’m no. 15. I can’t really complain, since theft is my salary.

  24. I’m still anxiously awaiting the magazine’s name change from Reason to the National Democrat Panderer, Semi Libertarian Edition. It doesn’t quite role off the tongue, but I’m for accuracy over subtlety.

  25. He forgot Will Smith and Michael Jordan.

    After the money men aligned behind Obama I knew he would win. People (including my own family) kept telling me he had to climb this amazing obstacle of race.

    I had to remind them that we are in the 21st century, and Americans will be literally crying in the streets when Oprah dies. Pefectly healthy women are going to need wheelchairs to get around.

    A pretty spot on article by Chapman.

  26. “Tax protester highjack! Ruuuun!”

    Ed, that’s the price you pay for permitting free speech ya damn libertines!
    Censor your comments like civilized people!

  27. libertarian democrat:
    “Are you kidding public schooled?

    At least in my high school, the teachers all played up non-violent resistance. Including not paying taxes.”

    This is sarcasm, right?

    I guess this happens all over the USA, that’s why so many democrats protested against Bush’s wars by not paying taxes….

  28. Why is everyone so worried? According the the insightful analysis from Reason, Obama’s presidency will be a pragmatic, free market utopia filled with gumdrops and sugar candy. Reason’s continued upbeat assessment of Barack’s future presidency has led me to believe that everything is going to go well, as this pragmatic, Chicago School liberal walks upon fragrant free market rose petals, sprinkling sane fiscal policy like fairy dust from his capable fingers. Nothing left to do but sit back and wait for the bliss and rapture of January, when we’ll, no doubt, see the inauguration of a president who will be far more libertarian leaning than that closet socialist, John McCain.

    Oh wait, that’s all bullshit.

  29. Not at all, Andy. Of course, it is perhaps unsurprising that not everyone practices what they preach, but there was a strong thread of approval for all sorts of non-violent resistance. Also for free speech (even if racist or otherwise unacceptable), as long as it was off school grounds (SLD of course, but debate what you will about public school and free speech, I find that fairly reasonable)

  30. The difference between Obama and Clinton, at least for the next 2 years, will be the Democrat majority congress.

    Didn’t Clinton start with a majority Dem Congress?

    In this respect the comparison with Obama is actually quite apt since Obama himself transcends the stark racial categories of the older generation.

    Well, except when he doesn’t. He started his political career in Chicago by joining Rev. Wright’s church, let’s not forget. And he has always allowed (at minimum) his minions to play the race card on his behalf when convenient.

  31. also, in contrast to Woods being very vocal about rejecting the ‘black’ designation, a lot of the content of Obama’s memoirs (from what I understand, having only read excerpts) focuses on his efforts to self-identify as black in spite of his ‘post-racial’ background.

  32. Epic fail, Steve, Epic fail.

  33. The most notable change: The president’s black! OMG, everything will by super cool now!

  34. Hogan, forget about the writings, just look at who he married. Michele Obama is anything but post-racial. I don’t need to hear a whitey tape to know her world view is centered on black victimology.

  35. Stop picking on me, James Ard!

  36. its’great to watcht teh wingnuts here scare themselves shitless thinking “OBAMA IS A SOCIALIST”.

  37. After that drinking age thread, I am fairly certain that Steve Chapman no longer reads the H&R comments.

  38. But James, you know that adults under the age of 21 are not qualified to make decisions about drinking.

  39. Obama will be, in the bigger picture, a Clintonian pragmatist, surrounded by moderates that will convince him to bust the deficit and lower (most) taxes.

    We can hope.

  40. …bust the deficit and lower (most) taxes.

    Completely and utterly impossible in any kind of real universe, especially with the panoply of new spending programs Obama and the new Congress will certainly have in mind.

    We already know that the federal debt is going to increase by nearly one trillion more dollars early next year, and the line at the bailout trough just keeps getting bigger every day.

  41. James Ard writes, “… just look at who he married. Michele Obama is anything but post-racial….”

    You’ve hit upon yet another similarity — the Clinton first lady and the Obama first lady. The wives are far more left-leaning than their presidential spouses.

    Bill and Barack are shrewd enough to speak platitudes, to nudge at the edges and play the game. When Obama voted, yeah, it was very left-liberal most times, but often enough it was simply “present.” He plays the game well. It’s all about appearances. In fact, already he’s started brilliantly, leading the charge for another bailout. The majority of citizens will love this.

    When Clinton won, the right screamed that it was the end of the world, and socialism had come to America. I guess they had been asleep over the country’s past century.
    As Chapman writes, Clinton left Washington in high regard (poll-wise). It was so high, in fact, that his spouse, the real “leftie” went to the Senate, and almost to the Presidential nomination.

    I suspect Barack Obama will go the same route as Bill. Timing’s everything. He’ll ride the economy’s cyclical upturn; he’ll make the government bigger, as did all (and I do mean all!) Presidents before him, and be remembered fondly.

    Most folks want easy access to credit, a job, and avoidance of wars that we can’t win quickly. The fact that it’s socialized democracy doesn’t matter. And it hasn’t for most of the country’s history.

  42. NHLiberty:

    The difference between Obama and Clinton, at least for the next 2 years, will be the Democrat majority congress.

    Lest we forget, Clinton enjoyed a Democrat-majority Congress for the first two years of his first term. Those days were marked by such excesses as Hillary’s health care task force.

    It was the “Republican Revolution” of 1994 that took Congress away from Clinton and gave us welfare reform and a balanced budget (not counting Social Security, of course).

    I predict the same arc for Obama, but with fewer gaffes. And no blowjobs from interns.

  43. NHLiberty writes: “I predict the same arc for Obama, but with fewer gaffes. And no blowjobs…”
    Now THAT was funny!
    And probably quite accurate.

    Bloomberg had a good article this morning: “Obama, Candidate of Change, Looks to Old Hands From Clinton Era”

    And so it goes indeed.
    Plus ?a change, plus c’est la m?me chose.

  44. Bah, I wrote a much better version of this article two days ago:

    Obama: More Clinton than Carter

  45. His promises to abandon President Bush’s policies on Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, the treatment of enemy captives, health care, and wiretapping contributed greatly to his success.

    I don’t expect any major changes here. Obama has already signed onto Bush’s concept of FISA. I don’t think he’ll really change the way we handle illegal combatants either. About 5% of those released from Gitmo have been recaptured committing terrorist acts. Two of them killed 9 people in a suicide bombing in Mosel. I don’t see Obama risking the hit he would take if turned everyone loose from Gitmo and one of them turned around and killed Americans. Neither can he make drastic changes in policy in Iran and Afghanistan without absorbing blame for any negative consequences. Remember he has to ride things out for 4-8 years. He will play it conservative.

    Bring radical change, especially in foreign policy, requires sticking his neck out, something Obama has never done. People who looked to him to radically alter U.S. security policy will be disappointed.

  46. i think the test will be how willing or capable he is to resist his own party. so far in his career, he’s done about jack shit along those lines. and all he’s done lately is accumulate a bunch of favors to pay back. dunno if he’s committed enough to tack a centrist line in the face of pressure from congress. could be.

  47. It’s no longer a novelty that some of our most admired public figures-Oprah Winfrey, Tiger Woods, Colin Powell, Denzel Washington-are black.

    Actually, I’d say it is just that, a novelty. In that Obama is the object of an ongoing celebration for a Historic Event. The San Antonio paper published a Commemorative Special Section to celebrate. Everyone I hear on TV is crowing. The symbolism is even cited here.

    The real progress was made last generation. My wife just travelled over to Texas A&M University to see her favorite entertainer, Bill Cosby, who was headlining, again, the celebration before the season’s first football game. Sidney Poitier was another such, in a time when Star Trek got bragging rights for the first interracial TV kiss.

    It is, of course, an accomplishment that we’ve made it to the novelty stage.

    Didn’t Clinton start with a majority Dem Congress?

    Yup. 1993-1995. But he signed the assault weapon ban and the NRA clobbered the Democrats in the 1994 election with “Vote Freedom First.” We’ll see if Obama heeds the lessons of history.

    Regardless, he’s set up to fail. Last night I watched two supposed Democratic insiders fighting over what Obama’s real policies are. I think his power base has huge expectations on a wide variety of policies. He’s pitched as a superhero, and needs a supervillan to counter.

    Only, I keep remembering what happens to the cities where these comic-book conflicts occur.

  48. Three cheers for LarryA’s comic book methaphor. Excellent.

  49. In fact, already he’s started brilliantly, leading the charge for another bailout. The majority of citizens will love this.

    Why? The majority of citizens hated the first one.

    I think Shannon Love and Hogan nicely encapsulate the horns of the dilemma that Barack is on. He’s never bucked the party line and always played it safe, but adhering to the party line now will mean running some very substantial risks.

    Its all Dems in Washington now. Obama has been a cold and ruthless politician when he needed to be. Is he cold and ruthless enough to (a) stiff-arm Congressby turning back big entitlement expansions, tax increases, and bailouts, and (b) piss on his lefty supporters by staying the course set by Bush on foreign policy?

    At this point, nobody has any idea. Including, I suspect, the Big O himself.

  50. LarryA, I was just thinking how much we owe Hollywood for our Black president. I usually don’t like social engeneering in movies and TV, but I’ll give credit when it is due, and featuring minorities probably helped people get over their trepidations.

    jg, you remind me of the instance where Bill Clinton refers to Obama as a Chicago thug. Well, BC knows a Chicago thug when he sees it. He’s been married to one for thirty years or so.

  51. “Why? The majority of citizens hated the first one.”

    Because the first one was recognized as a bailout of Wall Street fat cats.
    This one is being marketed as a “middle class relief plan.”

    That’s the thing about jokes. It’s all in how you tell ’em.

  52. Yea, I never could tell a joke. Hopefully this thread is down page far enough that nobody else sees it.

  53. I kind of liked Obama when I first heard his speaches. I started disliking him when he ranted against Wall Street in the primaries. I knew he was a clone of Bill Clinton when Obama did a 180 and pushed for the bailout without blinking an eye. Obama will support whatever the polls tell him to.

  54. James, I thought yours (“…married to one…”) was actually quite funny Just needed the Dangerfieldesque ba-dum-ch…
    🙂

  55. Didn’t know Clinton was such a windbag.

  56. For those under the illusion Obama was really going to actually cut spending in any way – “Pay As You Go” is history now:

    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB122628143512612399.html

  57. I predict that 0’s actions will prove everything Steve Chapman says about him here is BS, including those of you on here who haven’t realized this already.

  58. The Obama Campaign for president has truly been inspiration for most people. His campaign has certainly proven that anything is possible as long as you put your mind to it.

    I am an entreprenuer currently residing in Florida and I have created what I believe to be most unique Obama merchandise. It is an exact replica of the plane used by Obama for his campaign. Durable and beautifully designed for keeping for many years to come. Check out http://site.obamaplane.com for additional information.

  59. As somebody else put it elsewhere:

    Will Barack Obama be the first black Bill Clinton?

  60. “Most of those who supported him did so on the assumption that they would not fall in the class of people who will have to cough up more to the IRS.”

    and most of the people who voted for mccain would not cough up more either. that’s simply a matter of population.

    people making over $200K a year overwhelmingly voted for Obama.

  61. Does this mean Manpower will once again become the nation’s largest private employer as it was in the 90s?

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.