The conventional wisdom says America’s success or failure is all about the president. Bush was a bad one, so the economy tanked … and Clinton was a good one so the economy soared. Obama’s a good president but he can’t “get things done” because Congress just says no to everything, and now that will just be worse. Right?
Wrong. Each sentence in that paragraph is mistaken.
Let’s take them in order.
Was Bush was a bad president who tanked the economy? No.
If you read conservative pundits during the Bush years, the overwhelming tone was one of intense criticism of Bush’s economic policy.
After the initial tax cuts (which helped me, far from a one-percenter, a great deal because I was tucking seven per-child-tax credits into bed each night) Bush’s economic policies were not at all fiscally conservative.
• Larry Kudlow is just one example of a conservative pundit complaining in 2005 that Republicans had gone native and become commissioners of pork. Bush went along.
• At the Conservative Political Action Conference in 2009, Gingrich didn’t criticize the Obama Stimulus, he criticized the “Bush-Obama big-spending program”
• Jonah Goldberg called Obamanomics “Bush on steroids.”
And when an Obama ad in 2012 warned that Romney “would double down on the same trickle-down policies that led to the crisis in the first place,” even the Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler called foul, giving it three “Pinocchios” out of four.
Wrote Kessler: “The financial crisis of 2008 stemmed from a variety of complex factors, in particular the bubble in housing prices and the rise of exotic financial instruments … the Bush tax cuts belong at the bottom of the list — if at all.”
Apart from a handful of tax cuts, Bush’s policies were very much a cooperation between the two parties.
Was Clinton was a master of political awesomeness who “got things done” in the face of an opposition Congress? Ah … yes and no.
The New York Times a couple of weeks ago printed “Toxic Partisanship? Bill Clinton Says He Had It Worse, Yet Got Things Done” which is a partly helpful but mostly self-serving version of the history of the Clinton presidency.
The helpful part: Clinton’s reminds us that a president’s job is to find ways to work with opponents, not to find ways to blame them.
The self-serving part: The article conveniently fails to mention what it is that Bill Clinton “got done.”
The truth is, after becoming President, Bill Clinton tried very hard to get his party’s legislative agenda accomplished, and failed. So he got the other party’s legislative agenda accomplished, instead.
He passed what GOP press releases called “the largest tax increase in U.S. history” in 1993, and planned a massive overhaul of the nation’s health care system, led by Hilary Clinton and Ira Magaziner. Voters responded in horror by giving Congress to the Republicans.
The Republicans took the ball and ran with it, pushing a flurry of legislation through Congress including the Balanced Budget Act, Welfare Reform and the first per-child tax credits (full disclosure: I was Press Secretary for the Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee at the time). Clinton signed the final versions of those bills, becoming the last and most important signatory to Newt Gingrich’s Contract With America.
So Bush and Clinton both “got things done” not by doing their things, but by doing the other party’s things.
One important difference: Bush faced a hostile media that spit vitriol every time they uttered his name, and Clinton laid back into the loving arms of a media that shivered with delight whenever they said his name.
That said, another difference was just as important: While Republicans constantly complained that Bush never defended himself and often didn’t even seem to want to “get his message out,” Bill Clinton was a master at taking credit. Clinton said “The era of big government is over.” He said “We are ending welfare as we know it.” And after being forced to embrace the Contract’s Balanced Budget Act and accept GOP measures, he told the nation, dramatically:
“Tonight I come before you to announce that the Federal deficit, once so incomprehensibly large that it had 11 zeros, will be, simply, zero. I will submit to Congress for 1999 the first balanced budget in 30 years.”
Is Obama being stopped by Congressional naysayers? Well, no.
The way Democracy works is that a president works with the opposition party to find legislation they can work together on.
Obama has never taken that approach. His famous reply to Congressional Republicans trying to work with him after his initial inauguration was: “I won.”
And now, Obama’s reaction to the GOP gains in the 2014 midterms is summed up in a Daily Mail headline: “WHAT LANDSLIDE? Obama threatens vetoes and executive orders – including immigration reform THIS YEAR – after Americans reject him by giving Republicans historic gains in Congress.”
So that’s the story of our recent presidents:
Clinton was a love-hungry narcissist who caved to Republicans with a smile on his face and took credit for the good that followed.
Bush was a behind-the-scenes pragmatist who caved to a split-control Congress with a puzzled look on his face, and got blamed for what followed.
Obama is an ideologue who refuses to work with others, and blames everyone but himself for what follows.
What will that mean for Obama? If he stays the course of his ideological and undemocratic approach he will continue to fail to “get things done” and his party will continue to see their gains fritter away.