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September 25, 2013 3:50 PM Clintonism and Obamaism

By Ed Kilgore

The relationship between the 42d and 44th presidents of the United States has gotten sufficiently cozy that no one saw anything surprising in this development, as reported by WaPo’s Philip Rucker:

The pair of presidents settled into their plush armchairs Tuesday, crossed their legs and tried to demystify the new health-care law, which, as President Obama explained, has become “a little political.”
On this afternoon, on the glistening stage of his annual charitable gathering, former president Bill Clinton asked the questions. And Obama, as is often the case, wasn’t short with his answers.
The two men who stand as bookends for the modern Democratic Party made a united sales pitch to millions of uninsured Americans to enroll when new insurance marketplaces open Oct. 1.
“I don’t have pride of authorship for this thing,” Obama said of the law that could determine his legacy. “I just want the thing to work.”

Clinton added: “I think this is a big step forward for America. But first, we’ve got to get everybody to sign up.”

Obama has enlisted Clinton again as his “secretary of explaining stuff,” a nickname he earned after his well-received speech at the 2012 Democratic National Convention. The aim is for Clinton to help sell the health-care law to skeptics across the country while combating Republican attempts to undermine it.

The incident should serve as a reminder of a couple of big-picture realities that are easy to forget: Clinton and Obama are simply two figures in a long struggle for universal health coverage that dates back to Harry Truman. And Obama, the first since LBJ to succeed in a major step in that direction (though Clinton did make some incremental progress in health care for kids), wound up basing his plan on the very individual mandate that Hillary Clinton embraced in her 2008 primary fight with Obama.

More generally, as memories of that 2008 fight fade, and as some of the more chiliastic expectations of Obama’s presidency are buried, it’s probably time to suggest that the two men are part of the same political tradition that has dominated the Democratic Party—and to a remarkable extent the country—for a long time.

Look at it this way: if Hillary Clinton is elected president in 2016 and re-elected in 2020, then the Clinton-Obama-Clinton administrations will have spanned 24 of the 32 years between 1992 and 2024. And by 2020, it will have been 40 years since any Democrat not named Clinton or Obama has been elected president.

Would that be remembered by historians as an “era?” I should think so. A mere twelve years separated Wilson and FDR; JFK became president fifteen years after FDR’s death. Even if Carter’s one-term presidency is considered an aberration, at most twenty-four years separated the JFK-LBJ “era” from the beginning of the current ascendency.

It’s really not that easy to find major differences between the governing philosophy of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Both have had to deal with uncooperative Republicans who controlled parts of the federal government. Both have juggled uses of limited force with multilateral diplomacy in foreign policy. Both chose (partly by necessity, but partly by predilection) to treat the private sector as a partner and sometimes vehicle for achieving large public policy objectives. Both on more than one occasion angered their party’s progressive activist “base,” and have had to deal with accusations of betrayal by Democratic members of Congress.

The idea of Clinton and Obama being part of the same tradition should come as no surprise to those of you who read the March/April 2012 issue of the Washington Monthly, about Obama’s emerging legacy, or particularly Paul Glastris’ Editor’s Note for that issue, entitled “Clinton’s Third Term.” Now it seems less provocative, and with the increasing likelihood of an HRC succession, more interesting than a comparison of two very different men who took different routes to similar destinations.

To those longing for more audacious progressive leadership, the idea of a 24-year Clinton-Obama era may seem profoundly depressing. But to those of us who came of age during the long ascendancy of an increasingly conservative GOP, and who fear that party’s latest radical incarnation, it would be grounds for considerable celebration.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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