There’s a subtext to President Obama’s slew of domestic policy proposals since the November elections: President Obama does not trust Hillary Clinton very much.
None of the president’s domestic-policy brainwaves has much chance of becoming law in the next two years: not free community college, not cash grants to selected middle-income households, and certainly not heavy tax increases on upper-income earners. The president knows these odds better than anybody. So why keep propounding such no-hopers? The intent, pretty obviously, is to box in his presumptive successor as head of the Democratic Party.
Every time the president advances a concept that thrills his party’s liberal base, he creates a dilemma for Hillary Clinton. Does she agree or not? Any time she is obliged to answer, her scope to define herself is constricted.
Hillary Clinton emerges from the Democratic Party’s business wing. Whatever her own personal views—still an elusive quantum after all these years in public life—she is identified in the public mind with her husband’s record, her husband’s appointees, and her husband’s donors. Not just in the public mind, but seemingly in the president’s mind, too. So as the clock runs down on his administration, he seems determined to set the post-Obama Democratic Party on a more leftward course than he himself had the strength to steer.
Obama here is sharply departing from the practice of other recent two-term presidents as their transition neared.
As Ronald Reagan’s second term entered its final stretch, he and his last chief of staff, Ken Duberstein, became legendarily solicitous of the views of the Republican Party’s likely next presidential nominee, George H.W. Bush. Bush got such a voice in major policy decisions and appointments that insiders dubbed the process “a friendly takeover,” with the emphasis on the “takeover,” not the “friendly.” President Reagan’s 1987 and 1988 State of the Union addresses were strikingly cautious: more old nostrums, like the balanced budget amendment, than new initiatives. The outgoing president seemed determined to avoid anything that might compromise his likely successor.
President Bill Clinton’s relationship to Vice President Gore was more fraught than Reagan’s with Bush. President Clinton was also more personally energetic in his final two years than the more elderly Reagan. Yet to the extent that Clinton tried to shape the next presidential election, he did so by hammering upon the theme on which he and Gore most emphatically agreed: earmarking government surplus revenues to the Social Security trust fund, rather than tax cuts or new spending, the famous “lockbox.”
Neither Reagan nor Clinton tried to hem in their party’s likely next nominees in the way that President Obama is hemming in Hillary Clinton. Why the difference?
Two leading explanations are offered by smart pundits.
Explanation 1: Obama isn’t aiming at Clinton, exactly, so much as he is trying to shift the whole national dialogue. By advancing bold proposals in his State of the Union, the president will alter the definition of the possible.
Explanation 2: Obama isn’t trying to change law, so much as he is trying to goad Republicans into over-enthusiastically defending the interests of the wealthy.
Can the president and his advisers believe either?
As for the first explanation, President Obama didn’t merely tout his “American Jobs Act” within a State of the Union address. He actually convened both houses of Congress in September 2011 for an address on that single proposal. Obama then reprised that speech again and again across the country over the next year. He ignited nothing. Can he really imagine that his new—and much less likely to be popular—proposals will spark more excitement? The advance reports suggest the president will abolish a popular middle-class savings vehicle for college education and that he wishes to double-tax estates, first with the estate tax itself, and then by applying additional capital gains taxes to selected assets within the already taxed estate. Liberals who work with polling data perplexedly acknowledge the massive unpopularity of the estate tax. This is not the stuff of which political paradigm shifts are made.
The second explanation seems even more far-fetched. Democrats embarrass Republicans when they champion benefits that Americans regard as earned: Social Security and Medicare above all. Minimum wage increases? Super-popular. But when Democrats propose outright and visible redistribution of wealth, then they are playing on terrain Republicans long ago trenched, mined, and barbed-wired. “In these challenging times, higher taxation of job-creating investment is the very last thing this country needs.” Republicans can repeat that line in their sleep, without a gaffe, all day, every day, including weekends.
If anything, in fact, the State of the Union proposals will help and strengthen Republicans—precisely by shifting debate away from issues on which Republicans are divided to the issue-set on which all Republicans agree. In fact, Obama is handing Jeb Bush, Mitt Romney, Chris Christie, and their fellow presidential aspirants the perfect opportunity to woo the Republican Party’s conservative voting base. The awkwardness he has created is all on his own side.
In the 2008 cycle, Hillary Clinton made clear that she would oppose tax increases on people earning less than $250,000. President Obama’s proposed abolition of tax-protected college savings would be experienced by many such people as just such a tax increase. She said she would hold the line on the capital gains tax at 20%, its rate during the Clinton administration. President Obama’s estate tax proposals would effectively raise that rate. The line Obama will reportedly draw in his State of the Union divides Clinton from him, not Republicans from the American mainstream—or from each other.
Barack Obama himself delivered the answer way back in January 2008, when a Nevada editorial board asked him about his view of the role of Ronald Reagan in American politics. "I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America,” he replied, “in a way that, you know, Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not.”
Obama strongly opposed George W. Bush, but when he was defining himself as a national figure, it was Bill Clinton against whom he defined himself. Clinton politics were petty and personal. “In the back and forth between Clinton and Gingrich,” he wrote, in The Audacity of Hope, “and in the elections of 2000 and 2004, I sometimes felt as if I were watching the psychodrama of the baby boom generation—a tale rooted in old grudges and revenge plots hatched on a handful of college campuses long ago—played out on the national stage.”
In 1995 Bill Clinton announced to both houses of Congress that the era of big government had ended. In 2009, Obama, speaking from the same rostrum, warned that "the danger of too much government is matched by the perils of too little.” At some deep level, Obama’s entire project has been a reply, not to Republican conservatism but to Democratic neoliberalism. Now, as his presidency nears its close, the wife, heir, and namesake of the leader of the neoliberals has emerged as the overwhelming favorite to lead the Democratic Party in 2016.
Almost as much as a Republican victory, a Clinton succession would punctuate the Obama presidency with a question mark. Obama’s highest priority over the next two years seems to be to convert that question mark into an exclamation point, to force Hillary Clinton to campaign and govern on his terms. Whatever happens after that, he can at least say that it was his kind of Democratic Party—not Bill Clinton’s—that won a third consecutive mandate, after having twice done what Clinton never did: win an outright majority of the presidential ballots cast.
Of course, Hillary Clinton can see all this, too. So can Bill Clinton, perhaps even more acutely. The next fascinating question is: what will they do about it?
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