Obama should take a lesson on how the former president’s emphasis on market economics win crucial moderate voters.
After Barack Obama’s inaugural address, where he presented a full-throated defense of social and economic liberalism, I went back and read Bill Clinton’s 1997 inaugural. The two Democrats naturally share common themes, but their differences are sharp.
As high as Democrats are riding today, they have plenty to learn from Clinton’s search for the center. He positioned them where they could build coalitions from the middle; Obama’s muscular liberalism could drive Democrats off the left edge.
Political prognosticator Charlie Cook suggests why they should worry about that, too. After the election, Cook wrote that moderates are just as important as independents when it comes to being crucial swing voters.
Clinton certainly spoke to the middle in his second inaugural. Consider this part of his vision for 21st-century America:
“Ports and airports, farms and factories will thrive with trade and innovation and ideas. Our land of new promise will be a nation that meets its obligations — a nation that balances its budget but never loses the balance of its values. A nation where our grandparents have secure retirement and health care, and their children know we have made the reforms necessary to sustain those benefits for their time.”
Not all that happened, of course. Still, look at his emphasis: global trade, balanced budgets and entitlement reforms.
Obama isn’t pushing those issues. Last week, for example, he warned against too much of an overhaul of Social Security and Medicare, even though entitlements are driving the long-term debt.
Then there was this Clinton line about globalization’s potential:
“Growing connections of commerce and culture give us a chance to lift the fortunes and spirits of people the world over.”
In Obama’s address, the possibilities of globalization weren’t a high priority. The primary reference was with America’s military role, not explaining how opening up markets can help American businesses and their workers, as well as spur on developing nations’ economies.
Finally, here is how Clinton spoke about recalibrating government:
“We need a new government for a new century, a government that is smaller, lives within its means and does more with less. Yet where it can stand up for our values and interests in the world, and where it can give Americans the power to make a real difference in their everyday lives, government should do more, not less.”
Clinton thought government should be limited but effective. During his tenure, he left room for the dynamics of a market economy, especially when it came to technological innovations.
Obama’s emphasis is more on government than on the power of markets to drive growth. And I’m not just talking about his inaugural. That has been true throughout his presidency.
Let me be clear: I share some of Obama’s social agenda. His pledge to fight for a fair immigration system, equal rights for gays and better gun laws would strengthen the nation’s social foundation.
Think about how Lyndon Johnson’s fight — and it was a fight — for civil rights laws created a stronger, better America. We take those advances for granted, but there was a day when the mere color of an American’s skin could determine that person’s potential.
LBJ’s social agenda
The president is now offering a twist on LBJ’s social agenda. If Obama prevails, generations later will probably appreciate how he applied the concepts of the Declaration of Independence to the social realities of the 21st century.
But Democrats should worry about the economic strategies Obama seems ready to push. He’s closer to Keynesian economists such as Paul Krugman, who are not so worried about deficits, than to business Democrats such as Erskine Bowles, who keeps pressing Washington to deal with the deficit. On top of that, the president shows a tepid embrace of globalism and international trade.
Perhaps he will prevail with a socially and economically liberal agenda. But there’s a risk for his party if he goes too far left, leaving Americans who embrace social liberalism and fiscal conservatism as skeptical of Democrats as they are of Republicans.
That’s why Democrats should dial the clock back to the last member of their party who delivered a second inaugural address. In it, they will find a president with a feel for the center.
William McKenzie is an editorial columnist for The Dallas Morning News. Distributed by MCT Information Services.
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