n November 8, 1994, the Democratic Party suffered what was then its worst midterm defeat since 1946. At the time, I was deputy assistant for domestic policy in the Clinton administration. I will never forget the senior staff meeting in the Roosevelt Room the next morning. The names of the defeated Democrats were read, one by one. It was like the tolling of a church bell, an epitaph for the high hopes with which we had entered the White House less than twenty-two months before.
The results of the election led, within the administration, to a period of acute disorientation from which the resident of the Oval Office was not exempt. When the president returned from an immediate post-election overseas trip, he began reaching out in numerous directions—to longtime friends, elected officials, and even scholars. He sought answers to two questions above all: Why had the people so resoundingly rejected the Democratic Party (and, by implication, its leader)? And what should he do next?
The president’s quest soon shaded into what in any White House is a huge, decision-forcing event: the preparation of the annual State of the Union address. We all knew that the 1995 edition would be of more than usual importance. Everyone would scrutinize it for evidence of what the president had learned from the difficulties of his first two years and for the outline of a new direction during his next two.
And so, in a Clinton White House tradition little known to the wider public, several speechwriters and policy advisers, myself included, began a more formal process of soliciting memos from eminent thinkers on their ideas for the State of the Union, and putting those before the president.
The ten “memos to President Obama” that we present in this issue of the Washington Monthly are thus, for me at least, a replay of sorts. They are an attempt to solicit fresh thinking for a White House that needs it now as much as we did back then. Certainly the drubbing Clinton received in 1994 was every bit as bad as the shellacking Obama got in November, and the political road ahead seemed to us no less forbidding than it must to the current administration. The good news is that after listening to outside advice, Bill Clinton reconceived his presidency in the face of the Gingrich Revolution, and that reconception led, two years later, to his reelection. Barack Obama can do the same.
Back in 1994, in addition to soliciting memos, I was also asked to organize an in-person discussion between the president and a subgroup of the thinkers whose ideas we had sought. The participants at this event were asked to reflect on two broad questions facing the president going forward. First, how would he resolve the tension that had emerged between the “New Democrat” profile he had etched during the 1992 campaign and the New Deal traditions of his party? Second, were there broader trends at work in American society that both explained the vicissitudes of his first two years and offered resources for a more effective sequel?
I eventually selected a baker’s dozen of scholars—two groups of four, and one group of five—to participate in what turned out to be a memorable winter afternoon and evening at Camp David. The first group—historian Alan Brinkley, social scientists Theda Skocpol and Paul Starr, and African American think tank executive Eddie Williams—would uphold, in their distinctive ways, the best of the New Deal tradition. The second—the Democratic Leadership Conference’s then president, Al From, reinventing-government guru David Osborne, HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros, and the Progressive Policy Institute’s Will Marshall—made the case for the New Democratic alternative. And the third group—scholars Robert Putnam, Benjamin Barber, Alan Wolfe, Harry Boyte, and Os Guineas—would offer new ideas drawn from their ongoing work on American society, religion, and democracy. Each participant was given a strict five minutes to make his or her case, and the ensuing conversation was guided by the president.
As it turned out, the cast of characters at Camp David included not only Bill Clinton but also several other key White House associates: Hillary Clinton, Al and Tipper Gore, George Stephanopoulos, and Chief of Staff Leon Panetta, all of whom played important roles in the discussion. (Readers who want a detailed account of what transpired that day should consult chapter 3 of Benjamin Barber’s memoir, The Truth of Power: Intellectual Affairs in the Clinton White House.)
Did any of this high-powered talk directly influence the 1995 State of the Union address? Well, Bill Clinton might have reached the same conclusions without it, but his State of the Union speech certainly reverberated heavily with the ideas put forward during the discussions at Camp David. In the first place, the speech represented a clear choice to return to the New Democratic perspective that had shaped the 1992 presidential campaign. Where FDR had responded to the challenge of reviving an industrial economy, Clinton would focus on the needs of the emerging information economy. Where LBJ worked for laws to bring about greater racial and economic justice, Bill Clinton would advocate a new reciprocity between what government could do for citizens and what citizens would have to do for themselves and one another.
In addition, the 1995 State of the Union broadened the national discussion beyond the bounds of government and public policy. Early in the speech, Clinton made the following observation: “Our civil life is suffering in America today. Citizens are working together less and shouting at each other more. The common bonds of community which have been the great strength of our country from its very beginning are badly frayed.”
He returned, at length, to this topic in his conclusion, dwelling on the need to strengthen families, neighborhoods, and voluntary associations—religious and secular—to accomplish civic tasks that government and law could not. Putnam, Wolfe, and Guineas must have heard their thoughts in these words.
Clinton also called on Americans to engage in the “work of citizenship,” an idea that must have been satisfying to Barber and Boyte, much of whose work had centered on the problems of passive citizenship and weak democracy.
I do not know for sure whether Barack Obama is now engaged in the kind of systematic outreach that served Bill Clinton so well, but I hope he is. The essays that follow are designed as a contribution to such a process.
If I had five minutes to offer the president my thoughts about the 2011 State of the Union address, I’d take a deep breath and make the following points:
First, remember, as it says in scripture, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” Policies are no substitute for vision. Not only are the American people hurting, they’re also confused and scared. They know the old model of economic success has hit a wall, but they don’t know what the new one could be. Offer them a narrative that leads from today’s hard times to a new era of opportunity.
Second, seize the initiative. History has given you the opportunity to be a truly transformational president—to reorient both our economy and our fiscal policy to meet twenty-first-century challenges. Be as big and bold as the circumstances require—even if it means breaking some crockery.
Third, don’t forget that you emerged as a central figure in American politics with your call in 2004 to get beyond red and blue America. I suspect that you are as frustrated as anyone that you haven’t been able to advance that goal. But the people are expecting you to keep on trying to be the president of all Americans. So extend your hand to the opposition and keep it there. Let the people see for themselves the real obstacles to civility and cooperation.
Fourth, make it clear you understand that no party has a monopoly on wisdom and virtue. As you deal with an emboldened opposition, try to separate the wheat of legitimate ideas from the chaff of irresponsible invective. Magnanimity lies at the core of statesmanship.
Fifth, draw a clear line between what is up for compromise and what isn’t. Many people think that Bill Clinton turned to a politics of opportunism after the 1994 midterm. That’s wrong. In fact, it was his determined defense of core values and commitments—to Medicare and Medicaid, education, the environment, and national and community service, among others—that induced the opposition to overreach and ended up turning the tide.
Sixth, remind yourself that you are president, not prime minister; head of state, not just head of government (and certainly not just a party leader). Speak frankly about the fears so many people have, and articulate the beliefs that bring us together as Americans. In that connection, a word of caution: American exceptionalism is alive and well in the hearts and minds of the people. Turn it to your own purposes, but never deny it.
And finally, understand that the people don’t expect perfection from their president. But they do expect candor and humility. In a manner consonant with your conscience, accept your share of responsibility for what hasn’t gone right during your first two years, and promise to work tirelessly on the people’s behalf to put it right. The people will think more, not less, of you if you do.
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