As the debt ceiling crisis speeds towards default, 2011’s President Barack Obama is beginning to look like Bill Clinton’s 1995.
A new Pew Research Survey compared the presidential reelection prospects of Barack Obama to three presidents who came before him, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush. The comparisons between Obama and Clinton are striking. In August of 1995, Bill Clinton’s approval rating was split 44%/44%. Obama approval rating is 44%/48%. In 1995, Americans preferred the generic opponent of Clinton 44%-41%. By a one point margin voters prefer to reelect Obama 41%-40%.
In June of 1995, only 25% were satisfied with the state of the nation. In July of 2011, 17% are satisfied with the state of the nation. At the same point in the Clinton presidency 47% believed that their personal finances were excellent/good, compared to 38% for Obama. The biggest difference between Clinton and Obama is that in 1995 34% of Americans thought that the economy was excellent/good. In 2011, the number is of people who feel that the economy is good is 8%.
Bill Clinton was facing a hostile GOP controlled House that was dead set on shutting down the government. In 2011, Barack Obama is facing a Republican controlled House which contains a strong faction that is dead set on pushing the country into default. The Republican controlled House later impeached Clinton, and there is talk among House Republicans in 2011 of impeaching Obama.
During Clinton’s first term House Republicans shut down the government because the president would not agree to massive cuts in Medicare and Medicaid. In 2011 the story is the same, but this time Republicans have upped the ante, and are threatening to blow up the entire US economy if they don’t get massive cuts in the entire social safety net led once again by demands to gut Medicare and Medicaid.
When President Clinton gave a national address on the government shutdown, he said, “My message to Congress is simple — you say you want to balance the budget, so let’s say yes to balancing the budget, but let us together say no to these deep and unwise cuts in education, technology, the environment, Medicare and Medicaid. Let’s say no to raising taxes on the hardest- pressed working families in America. These things are not necessary to balancing the budget. Yes to balancing the budget, no to the cuts.”
In his national address on the debt ceiling earlier this week President Obama said, “Most Americans, regardless of political party, don’t understand how we can ask a senior citizen to pay more for her Medicare before we ask corporate jet owners and oil companies to give up tax breaks that other companies don’t get. How can we ask a student to pay more for college before we ask hedge fund managers to stop paying taxes at a lower rate than their secretaries? How can we slash funding for education and clean energy before we ask people like me to give up tax breaks we don’t need and didn’t ask for?”
Republicans are playing the same game that they played in 1995, with three key differences. The stakes are global this time, President Obama is dealing with an impotent Speaker of the House who has zero control over his caucus, and the economy is exponentially worse in 2011 than it was in 1995.
In 2010 John Sides analyzed the polling on Bill Clinton to see if the conventional wisdom about the government shut down making Clinton more popular was correct. Sides concluded that, “But the public did not come to feel more favorably toward Clinton during this period, which suggests again that life under divided government isn’t easy, even when presidents fight the opposite party and win.”
What Clinton gained from the government shutdowns and what Obama stands to gain today can’t be measured in immediate polling. Just as Clinton didn’t hit his stride until he had the Republicans to play off of, Obama has set out to define himself against the Tea Party GOP. Some people have been surprised by Obama’s show of strength in these debt ceiling talks, but just like Clinton, Obama has a chance to shape and forge an identity by playing off his House Republican foil ahead of his reelection campaign.
The debt ceiling crisis will be another image defining moment for Obama’s presidency. House Republicans have dusted off Newt Gingrich’s failed script, and in the last few weeks the Obama White House has been taking pages from the Clinton playbook.
The names and faces have changed, but the battle is the same. Obama may take a short term political hit, but he is hoping that by being the reasonable adult in the room, he will be rewarded with the same result in 2012 that Bill Clinton had in 1996.