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Politics

Is Obama Learning from Bill Clinton?

Apparently so. The similarities are striking.

With a scary debate raging over raising the federal debt ceiling, Washington in the summer of 2011 bears an eerie resemblance to D.C. in November 1995. Back then, the federal government actually did grind to a halt, however briefly, in another dramatic showdown between another Democratic president, Bill Clinton, and resurgent Republicans in Congress.

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Is President Obama studying Clinton for clues on how to outwit the GOP? He’s certainly rolling the same dice. Clinton triumphed in the 1995 government shutdown debacle, and went on to win a second term. Obama is banking on the same scenario.

The stage backdrops for today’s drama are positively déjà vu. Sixteen years ago, Republicans were pumped up by big midterm election gains, as they are now. With Newt Gingrich just elected speaker of the House, the GOP revolutionaries marched to a Contract With America manifesto forged during the 1994 campaign. Ending business as usual in Washington was their goal. Today, we have tea party Republicans hell-bent on bringing the Beltway to its knees.

Like Obama today, Clinton was chastened by the GOP populist groundswell. He realized he would have to tack to the center-right, positioning himself as a “third way” between fire-breathing Republicans determined to shut down the government and big-spending liberals in his own party. The strategy become known as “triangulation,” and it vaulted Clinton toward reelection.

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“The era of big government is over,” Clinton famously declared (a strange thing for a Democrat to say). He signed on to welfare reform. And he worked with Republicans in Congress to clear a path to a balanced budget, as Obama is doing now.

But Clinton stood firm as the opposition party insisted on shutting down the government, leading to a brief cutoff in Social Security benefits and basic services. Americans howled. Gingrich and colleagues overplayed their hand. By positioning himself as a reasonable alternative between political extremes, Clinton won favor with independents and moderate voters again.

Clinton’s triumph also underscored the bully pulpit power of the presidency. A sitting president has a stronger voice than any member of Congress. Once the debt ceiling showdown is over, Obama will use his standing as commander in chief to track a more centrist course. Again, he’s looking at independents and moderates, not to devotees of cable talk shows. As an incumbent without a challenger in the primaries, he’ll have that luxury.

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Obama has already taken a move to the center-right. He’s agreeing, for instance, to extend all Bush-era tax cuts, for the wealthy and for all taxpayers. He’s offering $3 trillion in spending cuts and $1 trillion in revenue, besting GOP leaders at their own game.

Obama also has agreed to continue large troop forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. Will it work for him, as it did for Clinton in Bosnia in 1995? Odds are that it will. He’ll maintain support from independents, the key to modern elections. A drawdown in military operations is usually always met with applause from the American people.

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Clinton rightly gambled that Republicans would be blamed for the government shutdown. Obama seems to be making the same calculation. On July 19, in an effort to jump-start a compromise and make the “no taxes ever again” Republicans appear nonsensical, Obama applauded a revival of the so-called Gang of Six plan of $3.7 trillion in savings developed by a bipartisan group of moderate lawmakers.

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Obama is even considering some slight paring of Social Security, over vehement opposition from an angry liberal left. It’s about the last thing the president would have suggested in the 2008 campaign. And it echoes Clinton’s triangulation strategy to a T.

In 1995, John Boehner (R-OH), now House speaker, was a young gun in the House ranks. In 1997,he would join with then Rep. Tom DeLay (R-TX) in a botched coup attempt aimed at Gingrich. Today, some see Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia, a conservative hard-liner, quietly eyeing Boehner’s top spot.

Also in 1995, then Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-KS) was emerging as the GOP establishment’s presidential nominee for the 1996 election. Party loyalists seemed to think it was Dole’s rightful turn to head the ticket. In 2011, the same role arguably is being filled by former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the early front-runner and the definition of a party establishment heavyweight.

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It’s more than a little intriguing and fun to look at all the similarities between the two years, but they don’t go on forever. One major difference: Clinton benefited from a historic, decade-long economic boom, spurred by a technology revolution that would change the world. The federal budget would be in surplus in a few years. Job growth was phenomenal. Twenty-three million jobs would eventually be created. That’s far from the case today.

In the summer of 1995, Obama was a local community organizer, and largely unknown beyond that. The same summer, Monica Lewinsky, then 21, arrived at the White House as an unpaid intern in the chief of staff’s office. But that’s a whole different story, of course.

Will Obama win reelection? That chapter has yet to be written. But you read it here first: He’s going to be copying from Bill Clinton’s 1995 playbook from now until November 2012.

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