As he prepares to make history when inaugurated Tuesday as the 44th president of the United States, Barack Obama reminds me more strikingly each day of one of his predecessors.
He may not like this.
It’s not Abraham Lincoln or Franklin Delano Roosevelt, leading heroically in time of crisis. It’s not Ronald Reagan, whom Obama once called transformative.
It’s his old nemesis from the presidential primary. It’s the 42nd president of the United States.
Yes, I invoke that other conciliatory, moderate, centrist, pragmatic, ambitious, talented, articulate young Democratic president talking of a new day and a new way. It’s that other young Democratic president who fought from Day One of his presidency to stimulate and focus like a laser beam on the economy. It’s that other young Democratic president who got all gummed up early in the polarizing effects of gay issues and the blunders of a few Cabinet nominees.
Bill Clinton came to the presidency reaching out to the opposite side. In fact, from his days in Arkansas, Clinton had confounded and offended his friends by taking them for granted while devoting his greater energy to trying to win over critics.
Obama invites Rick Warren, a gay-opposing fundamentalist preacher, to pray at his inaugural. Gays and strident liberals are angry.
Clinton promised to clear the way for gays to serve in the military, then back-tracked under pressure from the military establishment. Gays were angry.
Obama goes to dinner with conservative pundits, namely George Will, Bill Kristol and David Brooks. He does so to try to depersonalize political differences and establish understanding and lines of communication with Republicans he deems fair-minded and receptive to his new and expansive thinking.
Clinton brought in David Gergen from the Ford and Reagan White Houses and talked of being a “new Democrat” who was “neither tax-and-spend nor trickle-down.” Then Newt Gingrich blocked his budget and the government shut down and Monica got into the West Wing and, well, you know the rest.
Obama has a nominee for treasury secretary who miscalculated his own taxes and didn’t know he was using an undocumented household worker. Obama had a nominee for commerce secretary who turned out to be under investigation at home for graft.
Clinton had two nominees for attorney general with issues about the legality of domestic help.
Obama throws a few business tax cuts into his stimulus package to assuage Republican economic conservatives, then takes at least one of those cuts out when his Democratic base balks.
Clinton raised taxes on high incomes, strung out Democratic congressmen to vote with him, then betrayed those Democratic congressmen by going to Texas and telling rich businessmen that he agreed with them that he had raised their taxes too much.
Clinton campaigned by promising middle-class tax cuts, then abandoned those tax cuts in the interest of deficit reduction.
Obama campaigned on middle-class tax cuts, and, as yet, is weathering criticism in his own party that the cuts are too deep, and, beyond that, pointless.
Clinton leaned on Hillary to fix health care. Obama leans on Hillary to fix the world.
Alas, there’s very little really new under the sun. The main difference between 2009 and 1993 is that 2009 is exponentially more volatile and troubled.
Clinton couldn’t be great in part because no situation offering the chance of greatness presented itself. Obama has the chance. He has the ominous responsibility.
Thus there’s one key difference: Clinton lost focus by the tactical failing of trying to do too much at once early in his presidency. Obama has no choice but to do everything at once early in his presidency.
John Brummett, an award-winning columnist for the Arkansas News Bureau in Little Rock, is author of “High Wire,” a book about Bill Clinton’s first year as president. Send e-mail to jbrummett@ arkansasnews.com.