By William McGurn
(Cross-posted from the Wall Street Journal)
When the president enters the House chamber tomorrow night to deliver his maiden State of the Union address, members of Congress, the press, and the public will see Barack Obama at the podium. But they will have Bill Clinton on their minds.
Specifically they will be thinking of 1995, when a humbled Mr. Clinton addressed a newly Republican Congress after his own health-care proposals went down in flames. Though President Obama's party still holds the majority in both houses, it is a scared majority that has been unnerved by the unpopularity of the president's signature policy issue (health care) and terrified by the loss to Republicans of what they all, with David Gergen, regarded as the "Kennedy seat." So whatever Mr. Obama says tomorrow night, his words will inevitably be compared with the speech Mr. Clinton used to rescue his own presidency.
You see it in the return of words such as "pivot" and "triangulate," all evocative of a Clinton-like shift, in the pre-State of the Union commentary. Even those urging Mr. Obama to come out swinging rather than compromise are forced into a Clinton comparison. Thus the headline over Democratic strategist Robert Shrum's story in the magazine The Week last Friday: "Is this Clinton's Third Term?"
Even for the comeback kid, this is quite a turnaround. Almost two years ago to the day, Bill Clinton was a pariah in polite Democratic society—blamed for his wife's loss in the South Carolina primary, where he had compared Mr. Obama to Jesse Jackson. That followed a similar storm in the New Hampshire primary, where he also created a stir by characterizing Mr. Obama's antiwar credentials as "the biggest fairy tale I've ever seen."
A few days after the South Carolina loss, Sen. Edward Kennedy and his niece Caroline administered what appeared to be the coup de grace by endorsing Mr. Obama. Mr. Clinton must have found it galling to watch Mr. Obama claim the Kennedy inheritance he believed was rightfully his. But Mr. Kennedy didn't stop there, sniping at the Clintons with such lines as "with Barack Obama, we will turn the page on the old politics of misrepresentation and distortion."
Others piled on. It wasn't just that people preferred Mr. Obama to Hillary. The sense was that the Democrats were finally free to purge their party of the Clintons forever. Maureen Dowd captured the mood when she suggested Democrats take their cue from a Dr. Seuss rhyme: "The time has come. The time is now. Just go. I don't care how. You can go by foot. You can go by cow. Will you please go now!"
Yet for all his undeniable weaknesses, Mr. Clinton does seem to understand something that eludes Mr. Obama: In a center-right nation, a liberal doesn't want to get too far ahead of the voters. At times (and HillaryCare was one) Mr. Clinton got himself too far out in front—but when he had, he'd generally been careful to respond by scurrying back to the center and appropriating his opponents' most appealing messages.
That's exactly what he did in 1995, deploying humor and humility with equal effect in his State of the Union. "I know we bit off more than we can chew," he told Congress.
The following year he declared "the era of big government is over." He also reached out to Republicans on policy, embracing everything from welfare reform to the Defense of Marriage Act.
In the process, he learned one thing: In a nation where roughly 20% describe themselves as liberal, 40% as conservative, and 40% as moderate, there's not a high price for shutting out the left. As for history, Mr. Clinton went on to become the only Democrat since FDR to win and serve two full terms as president.
There's no sign that Mr. Obama buys any of this. His team argues, apparently oblivious to the inherent condescension, that no intelligent American could possibly oppose his health-care agenda on substance.
It's all just a big misunderstanding, says the White House. We just need to explain it better—like recasting a second stimulus as a "jobs bill," selling health-care reform as "deficit reduction," and throwing in a lot of speech references to the "middle class."
For his part, Mr. Obama is clear. He says he'd rather be a one-termer than give up on his agenda. But this State of the Union, with the president's approval ratings sinking, Democrats have to be asking themselves: Do Mr. Obama's chances of getting his agenda through really go up if the congressmen and senators listening to his words come to the conclusion he's a short-timer?
McGurn, a columnist for the Wall Street Journal, was formerly chief speechwriter to President George W. Bush
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