Larry Downing/Sygma — Corbis (left); Luke Sharrett, via The New York Times (right)
LINKED President Clinton in 1994; President Obama in March 2010.
By PETER BAKER
Published: April 2, 2010
WASHINGTON — For years, Bill Clinton tried to negotiate an arms control treaty for the post-cold-war era. He and Boris Yeltsin even agreed on a framework for a new Start treaty in Helsinki. But it never came to be. So when President Obama flies to Prague this week to sign a New Start treaty with Russia, it will culminate Mr. Clinton’s unfulfilled aspiration.
Nine years after Mr. Clinton left office, Mr. Obama has in some ways picked up his Democratic predecessor’s mantle. While they are very different presidents and not personally close, at least some of the unfinished agenda items left from the Clinton administration have found their way to the top of the Obama priority list. And the 44th president is arguably profiting from the work, and the setbacks, of the 42nd president.
The treaty to be signed this week and the health care overhaul signed into law last month represent the most obvious examples. But Mr. Obama also pushed through an economic stimulus package last year, which Mr. Clinton tried unsuccessfully to do in his first year. Mr. Obama has drawn bipartisan support for lifting the ban on gay men and lesbians’ serving openly in the military, an idea that backfired on Mr. Clinton. And where Mr. Clinton never submitted the Kyoto treaty to a hostile Senate, Mr. Obama is pushing forward with climate change legislation that has a shot at passing.
Other presidents have built on the policy agendas of predecessors. George W. Bush fashioned his presidency as an extension of Ronald Reagan’s, especially in cutting taxes. And Franklin D. Roosevelt completed the legacy of Woodrow Wilson, particularly in building a lasting international organization with American participation.
“Every great progressive era, if you look at history, begins with somebody hitting the barricades first and the other person establishing that progressive agenda and coalition,” said Rahm Emanuel, who was a senior adviser to Mr. Clinton and is now Mr. Obama’s White House chief of staff.
Such was the case with health care, 16 years after Mr. Clinton’s effort collapsed, he said. “Without ‘94 creating some space and some knowledge, the truth is 2010 could not have happened.” Of course, the comparisons are imprecise and the times in which the two men governed are radically different. In the calm after the cold war, Mr. Clinton was trying to pull his party back to the political center after years in the wilderness, while Mr. Obama campaigned as a more liberal figure in a time of war, terrorism and economic crisis. And there are areas where Mr. Clinton’s agenda has no need for continuation. Mr. Clinton’s success in reshaping welfare, pushing through free trade policies and enacting a tougher approach to crime arguably took those issues off the table for Mr. Obama.
A CLINTON FAILURE President Clinton at a 1994 rally calls for health care reform
“Clinton’s problem was trying to change the system during a time of peace and prosperity,” said H. W. Brands, a presidential historian who has written books on Wilson and F.D.R. “Americans are status quo friendly; if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Obama’s opportunity was to arrive when the status quo had been jolted and, in the eyes of many, discredited.”
Still, Republicans are confident that Mr. Obama has learned the wrong lessons from Mr. Clinton, and that he will ultimately see his party suffer at the polls as well.
“Certainly he achieved a legislative success that Clinton was unable to reach and that has given them confidence and momentum,” said Robert Walker, a former Republican representative from Pennsylvania. “But the problem they’ve got is the only momentum is with their own base. For independents, the real issues are the debt and deficit. And some of the programs he’s putting forward are exacerbating the problem.”
As he pursues initiatives that echo the Clinton era, Mr. Obama is benefiting from a changed society.
Attitudes toward gays in the military have shifted since Mr. Clinton’s time. Then, the chairman of the joint chiefs, Gen. Colin L. Powell, opposed lifting the ban. Now, the chairman, Adm. Mike Mullen, supports lifting the ban. And so does General Powell, who has changed his mind, not to mention former Vice President Dick Cheney.
But by paving the way on some of these issues, Mr. Clinton provided a roadmap for Mr. Obama. On gays in the military, for instance, Mr. Obama was careful not to tackle the issue from the start, as Mr. Clinton did much to his regret because it blew up in his face and he was forced to accept the compromise known as don’t ask, don’t tell.
“Rather than rushing into top-down change, the Obama White House has carefully mobilized support within the military leadership and has created a process of consultation designed to mute complaints that change is being rammed through,” said William A. Galston, a former Clinton adviser now at the Brookings Institution.
On health care, some like Mr. Galston argued that Mr. Obama took the Clinton lesson too far by giving Congress too much free reign. But Mr. Obama succeeded in part because Democratic lawmakers saw what happened when Mr. Clinton failed and they lost their majorities.
“The lesson many Democrats took from the Clinton experience 1993 and 1994 is that failure to lead guarantees election losses,” said Steve Elmendorf, a longtime Democratic strategist.
And Democrats learned, perhaps, to be bold. The later Clinton years showed “that even the most worthwhile incremental changes, like expansion of children’s health insurance, can’t get at the root economic dysfunctionality of the current system,” said John D. Podesta, who was Mr. Clinton’s last chief of staff and later led Mr. Obama’s transition after the 2008 election.
That applies overseas as well. Strobe Talbott, who was Mr. Clinton’s deputy secretary of state and main interlocutor with Russia, noted the different contexts the two presidents faced. “That said, there’s no question that the main themes and exertions of the Clinton foreign policy did lay a groundwork for what Obama’s trying to do,” he said, citing arms control, nonproliferation, strengthening international institutions “and, for that matter, climate change.”
A CLINTON PRIORITY President Obama announced a new Start treaty with Russia.
The danger, naturally, is to draw too much from the Clinton experience.
“You have to be careful not to overlearn old lessons,” said Joel P. Johnson, a former senior adviser to Mr. Clinton. “The times and circumstances have changed dramatically. But certain fundamentals remain the same, and past mistakes provide present insights. It’s the rough equivalent of studying game films in the N.F.L.”