Editor's Note

March/April 2012 Clinton’s Third Term

By Paul Glastris

The cover story in this issue, by yours truly, argues that Barack Obama has accomplished so much in his first term (health care reform, the stimulus, turning around Detroit—the list is long, and starts here) that he stands to go down in history as a great or near-great president. But it also notes that most Americans don’t see him that way, and hence might not be inclined to give him the second term he needs to secure that legacy in the eyes of history.

There are numerous reasons for this disconnect between Obama’s deeds and reputation. A big one, certainly, is his failure to make good on his campaign promise to “change Washington.”

Different audiences have different ideas about what this promise entailed. Moderates and independents hoped it meant overcoming the partisan bickering and petty gamesmanship in Washington; those on the left hoped it meant a new era of FDR-like liberalism. In either case, Obama didn’t or couldn’t bring it off, and people are disappointed.

Indeed, a case can be made that what he delivered was not change in this sense at all but a kind of continuity—a third Clinton term. As everyone knows, the architects of his economic policy, Larry Summers, Tim Geithner, and Peter Orszag, are all ex-Clinton guys. The fact that Obama hired them and followed their advice is the chief complaint of many liberals about the president. I argue in the article that the administration’s economic policies are more effective than the critics contend. But the point stands that those policies are fundamentally Clintonesque.

The Clinton stamp is in fact all over Obama’s presidency. All three of his chiefs of staff—Rahm Emanuel, Bill Daley, Jack Lew—served in the Clinton administration, as did both of Joe Biden’s (Ron Klain, Bruce Reed). One of Clinton’s former chiefs of staff, Leon Panetta, is now Obama’s defense secretary.

Look deeper into the bureaucracy, too, and you’ll see the Clinton imprint. One of Obama’s biggest education achievements to date is kicking banks out of the college loan program and providing students loans directly from the federal government. The policy will save $67 billion over the next decade, $36 billion of which will fund expanded Pell Grants. The person who led this effort is Obama’s former deputy undersecretary of education Robert Shireman. But it was Clinton who created the direct lending program itself, with the help of a young White House aide, Robert Shireman.

Obama’s biggest achievement in national service, which he said during the campaign would be “a cause of my presidency,” was signing a bill to triple AmeriCorps. But AmeriCorps, of course, was started by Clinton, and the current head of the program, John Gomperts, was chief of staff in the Clinton administration to Harris Wofford, the head of the Corporation for National and Community Service, which oversees AmeriCorps.

Some of Obama’s most impressive and original achievements have been in the foreign policy realm (killing bin Laden, pivoting toward Asia). But his agenda has obviously been implemented and significantly influenced by Hillary Clinton. And arguably her finest moment as secretary of state, getting the administration behind and helping to craft the multinational effort that toppled Moammar Gaddafi, was a nearly exact replay of the model of international military-humanitarian intervention the Clinton administration came up with for Bosnia and repeated in Kosovo.

That the Obama administration has carried forth so much of Clinton’s personnel and policy DNA shouldn’t be surprising, because the truth is that Obama and Clinton are awfully similar. Both are meritocrats of modest birth whose political roots are on the left (Obama was a community organizer in Chicago, Clinton ran George McGovern’s presidential campaign in Texas) who, for reasons of political and programmatic pragmatism, embraced policies outside the traditional liberal framework. But it was Clinton who cleared this political space, fusing a certain economic populism and concern for the poor and minorities with neoliberal policy prescriptions and appeals to traditional values like respect for work and entrepreneurship to form a genuinely fresh approach that went by the New Democratic moniker. Obama has not much associated himself with that brand, but in practice he has governed by its principles.

Obama famously said in 2008 that his campaign could best be analogized to that of Ronald Reagan; the Gipper “changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not,” he said. But increasingly it looks as if Clinton was the one who changed the trajectory—and Obama is the one who has racked up the biggest substantive achievements along its path.

Paul Glastris is the editor in chief of the Washington Monthly.


  • Gene Debs on March 09, 2012 9:02 PM:

    The "chief complaint" of many liberals is not that Obama hired ex-Clinton guys and then followed their advice.

    No one would care who Obama hired if he pursued policies they supported.

    The "chief complaint" of the liberals Glastris mentions is that Obama continued the policies not of Bill Clinton but of George W. Bush.

    Particularly in the area of illegal foreign wars, the transition between W. and Obama was seamless.

    And if the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is Obama's signature domestic achievement, Glastris woefully overstates the case for Obama going down in history as a "great or near-great president."

    Sadly, rather than reforming our healthcare system, which costs the most but delivers the least bang for the buck of any healthcare system in the world, the PPACA institutionalizes the private insurers that are, by far, the greatest source of waste in the current system, by requiring virtually every adult under age 65 to purchase their services. Anyone who has ever spent a few hours on the phone trying to get a private insurer to pay up when healthcare is needed should know what a disaster the ACA is going to be.

    There's a better solution of course - adopt a single payer system, which is what Obama used to support before he became a candidate for president. But taking single payer off the table must have been one of those "pragmatic" decisions for which Obama gets so much credit.

  • ncal on May 26, 2012 9:21 AM:

    ACA is architected to get to single payer -- Bernie Sanders made sure. There will be 2 national pilot models available to the states. Most of the blue states now are implementing Romneycare. But Vermont is doing another pilot -- single-payer. (They originally gave us the Medicare system too, so I'm gonna trust Vermonters on this one.) Virtually every corporation has chosen the single payer solution; they pay the medical costs because they're cheaper and pay the HMOs an administration fee. The states will choose that budget-wise solution too, even if they choose it second.
    Another achievement of Obama's that the author missed detailing: IT for ACA was in the stimulus bill; IT at the physician level. That's why the cost savings from IT are not included in the CBO evaluation of the ACA.