Obama Gears Up for Some Clintonian Triangulation

Conservatives are skeptical, liberals cringe

This article is from the archive of our partner .

Facing a hostile Congress and having accomplished a good chunk of his liberal agenda, President Obama has a chance to win back voters by emulating his old 2008 campaign frenemy, Bill Clinton. That's right, it's time for Triangulation 2.0 (visually represented thusly), reports National Journal's Reid Wilson.

Obama has launched "an effort to set himself above and apart from an unpopular Washington," Wilson writes, by convincing Americans he's not like these other jerks in D.C. To do that, the president will mimic Clinton's post-1994 strategy of adopting "some Republican proposals to reduce the size and influence of government while rejecting other ideas as bridges too far. That allowed Clinton to show voters he heard their message, all while portraying Republicans as out of the mainstream."

So far, the president has stolen a GOP idea and frozen non-military federal wages, angering his base. Expect more of that to come, Wilson predicts. Just as Clinton famously declared "the era of big government is over," this year Obama's "speechwriters might begin testing a new line for January’s State of the Union address declaring the era of big deficits over. The line isn’t as catchy as Clinton’s," but, "convincing voters he is willing to get serious about cutting the deficit just might ensure Obama gets four more years."

  • Let the Triangulation Begin, Rich Lowry writes at The National Review. "I’ve never understood why so many conservatives are so adamant that President Obama won’t triangulate," Lowry writes. Sure, there are some obstacles, including a noisier left. But Obama will do it "because, 1) he has no other option–big left-wing initiatives are closed off for now; 2) he wants to get re-elected. You’ll often hear conservatives say Obama is such a sincere left-winger that he won’t and can’t move to the center. But he was just as sincere a left-winger in 2008, when he campaigned on tax cuts and examining the budget line-by-line and living within our means." The real question is not if, but how much. "If he finds a half-dozen of these kind of moves [like the pay freeze], he might soften his image as a partisan liberal a bit."
  • But Clinton Had It Easier, The National Review's Jonah Goldberg argues. "I’m not sure that an attempted image makeover fully qualifies or will do the trick. If memory serves, much of Clinton’s triangulation was symbolic, superficial or trivial: school uniforms, V-chip, poll-tested vacations. I don’t think any of those things alone would have earned reelection for Clinton in 1996 (particularly against a stronger GOP candidate than Bob Dole). Many of the foreseeable opportunities for Obama to triangulate reside outside of his control. For instance, as Ramesh noted in the magazine, Clinton’s rehabilitation began with the Oklahoma City bombing. ... Moreover, the big kahuna of Clinton’s race to the center was his signing of welfare reform. I’m open to correction, but it seems to me the only major legislation coming down the pike of similar stature and ideological resonance would be the repeal and replacement of Obamacare. Will Obama really sign such a thing? I doubt it."
  • Obama Needs a Real Triangle, Matt Yglesias writes. "Something that I think should be understood about the idea of 'triangulating' via a proposal to freeze federal salary is that triangles are two dimensional objects. To triangulate properly you can’t simply occupy a point between where the left and right poles are, you need to also move off the line. ... Obama says (a) the short-term deficit is too high and (b) real wages for federal civilian workers are too high. But if (a) and (b) are true, why a nominal freeze? Why not a 3 percent cut? This move totally fails to achieve the goal of painting the opposition as unreasonable. Obviously any time there’s a disagreement about a quantitative issue you need to be willing to settle on a semi-arbitrary midpoint but as an opening bid it’s totally unstable. Better triangulation requires a triangle. Liberals say spend more money on schools, conservatives say spend less. I say: School uniforms! That’s a triangle."
  • Nevermind What He Says, What Will Obama Do? American Spectator's Joseph Lawler asks, noting that Obama told the New York Times that he's essentially a Blue Dog, but told progressive bloggers last month that he's a "strong progressive."  Obama will  say "just about anything in private. The question is about what he'll do," and that remains unclear. However, it's clear he won't be worrying about a liberal challenger. "If Obama's already committed to triangulation in order to defeat a Republican in 2012, there's no way he's going to worry about the threat of a harmless primary from the left."
  • We Need Bills That Actually Matter, Doug Mataconis writes at Outside the Beltway. "Much like the hullabaloo over earmarks and minuscule cuts in Congressional pay, this Federal pay raise is largely symbolic and will have little real impact on the deficit, and almost no impact on the growth in the size, scope, and power of the Federal Government. So, whether it’s triangulation or not doesn’t really matter." What matters is tackling the debt.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.