Why I Miss Bill Clinton

And why the Democrats will, too


If Barack Obama achieves nothing else in his presidency, he may do something that once seemed impossible: give a lot of people who aren't crazy about his party a new respect for Bill Clinton.

Clinton, for all his appetites and excesses, was a cautious, centrist sort of Democrat. He had innumerable ideas for things the government could do, but most were small and fairly innocuous. He was willing to go along with Republicans on some of their sound ideas—such as balancing the budget, reforming the welfare system, and expanding foreign trade.

He focused on making government better, not making it bigger. He didn't greatly enlarge Washington's role in our lives. He proclaimed—or conceded—that the "era of big government is over."

But Clinton never foresaw Obama. From the sound of his budget speech last week, the new president hopes the era of big government is just beginning.

It's hard to overstate the expansion Obama proposes. Leave aside the supposedly temporary spending binge that constitutes his stimulus package. Under his budget blueprint, total spending would soar by roughly 75 percent above what it was last year.

Of whom else could that be said? Do you expect to be spending 75 percent more 10 years from now? Does your employer?

The budget deficit, which Clinton (with the help of a Republican Congress) eliminated, would be with us forever. After the gargantuan $1.75 trillion shortfall this year, it would decline briefly before climbing to more than $700 billion a year.

Obama's fiscal blueprint builds on profligate habits established by George W. Bush. Under Clinton, federal spending fell to 18.4 percent of gross domestic product—the lowest level since 1966. By 2007, it was up to 20 percent. By 2019, according to the administration, it would rise to 22.6 percent.

This increase may not sound like much, but it is. Before the current recession began, reports budget analyst Brian Riedl of the conservative Heritage Foundation, government spending amounted to about $24,000 per household. Under Obama's plan, it would exceed $32,000 per household (in inflation-adjusted dollars). Someone will have to pay for every cent of that spending, and it won't be just the rich.

During the campaign, Obama often came across as a sensible pragmatist with an appreciation for both the value of markets and the limits of government—a Bill Clinton with self-discipline. He often painted Hillary Clinton as an old-fashioned, command-and-control Democrat.

But that Obama vanished sometime after Election Day. Lately, he brings to mind Lyndon Johnson, who imagined that the country could easily afford both endless war and a costly array of new programs.

Obama thinks the scariest economic crisis since the Great Depression is cause—or at least excuse—for an aggressive expansion of government, a la the New Deal. But it's a false parallel, economically and politically.

The severity of the Great Depression bred desperation, which made the public receptive to radical changes. This contraction has been far milder and less disruptive. In Franklin Roosevelt's day, Americans were open to transforming the economy. All they really want today is to revive it.

While they are willing to accept drastic measures to reverse the recent slide, they are not likely to favor keeping them once the emergency has passed. We all hope to see firefighters in the house if the kitchen catches fire. Few of us would want them to move in after the flames are out.

LBJ illustrates the dangers of taking an election victory for a far-reaching mandate. He got the Great Society passed, but two years after his landslide victory, Republicans made big gains. In 1968, Johnson didn't even run for re-election, and Richard Nixon won the presidency—which the GOP would hold for 20 of the next 24 years.

Americans, with their traditional wariness toward government, never bought into Johnson's expensive agenda. Before long, they were voting in Ronald Reagan, who saw Washington as the problem, not the solution. So even though Obama may be able to get his programs through a Democratic Congress, he and they may come to regret it.

Under Clinton, they demonstrated that his party could exercise fiscal responsibility, contain the role of government, learn from liberal failures (like welfare), and generate broad prosperity. He was convincing evidence that Democrats had changed.

Right now, I miss him. Before long, Democrats may as well.