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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Sixteen Years Ago

I’ve been reading TDS Co-Editor Stan Greenberg’s remarkable new book, Dispatches From the War Room, detailing his dealings with five remarkable heads of state (Bill Clinton, Nelson Mandela, Tony Blair, Ehud Barak, and Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada). And his second of two chapters on Bill Clinton, which focuses on the early days of his presidency, raises some interesting comparisons and constrasts with the initial steps taken by Barack Obama, particularly on the economy.
Clinton didn’t unveil his own economic plan (including his stimulus package) until the State of the Union Address on February 17. That happens to be the same calendar day on which Obama signed his stimulus package into law. Clinton’s stimulus package was pared down from $30 billion to $16 billion before it was even submitted to Congress (it ultimately fell below $1 billion). Obama’s came in at just under $800 billion. Clinton had to abandon the centerpiece of his campaign’s economic plan, a middle-class tax cut, again before it was submitted to Congress. Obama’s centerpiece tax cut was pared down in the stimulus package somewhat, but largely survived. Clinton’s approval ratings for his approach to the economy started high, fell quickly, rose again, and then fell again during his first few months in office. Obama’s have fluctuated somewhat, but have been largely steady.
Most notably, as Greenberg reminds us, the Clinton White House’s handling of his economic and budget plan–which, after all, wound up being the cornerstone of his administration’s extremely impressive economic record–was universally described, by friends and enemies alike, as “chaotic.” It certainly exceeded in uncertainty and actual confusion the “rookie mistakes” and occasional missteps that the Obama White House staff and economic team, which have barely had time to find their offices, are so often accused of.
Yes, the stakes facing Obama right now on the economy are significantly higher than those facing Clinton sixteen years ago, but not quite on the order of magnitude that many observers assume. The unemployment rate in January of 1993 was 7.3 percent, as compared to 7.6 percent in January of 2009. And Clinton, even more than Obama, had campaigned on reviving the economy and improving middle-class economic prospects.
In any event, some historical perspective is always helpful, and Stan’s book, which explicitly focuses on leaders in times demanding change, provides such perspective in rich and varying detail.

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