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Clinton V. Obama, Revisited

David Greenberg has an excellent essay in the Atlantic, well worth your time, about how it's actually very unusual for a president to burst out of the gate with great accomplishments in his first year. There is, however, one element of the argument I find strange. David argues that the model Obama will most closely follow is that of the last Democrat to hold the office:

The presidency that Obama’s resembles most so far isn’t any of these but, ironically, that of Bill Clinton—ironic because Obama, speaking in January 2008 about what makes a good president, implicitly denigrated Clinton even as he praised Ronald Reagan for having “changed the trajectory of America” and “put us on a fundamentally different path.” ...

Obama’s successes and struggles in his first year bear striking resemblances to Clinton’s. Both men were elected with similar mandates—Clinton won 370 electoral votes, Obama 365—and majorities in both houses of Congress. Both opened their first years well by signing a few queued-up executive orders and bills—including the Family and Medical Leave Act, for Clinton, and the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and the expansion of the Children’s Health Insurance Program, for Obama. And both made economic revival their first priority. Both men also entered office facing tooth-and-nail resistance from a right wing that had just lost the presidency. The right imagined Clinton, as it does Obama, to be far more radical than he really was, and it thus tried to delegitimize him. A short line connects the “Who shot Vince Foster?” conspiracy theories to those surrounding Obama’s citizenship.

Republicans also forced Clinton to pass his first economic plan without their support, much as they tried to scuttle Obama’s stimulus package. And despite losing the legislative battle, they succeeded in shaping public perception of these economic bills after their passage. Clinton’s 1993 budget—which not only set the government on course for a record surplus, but also cut taxes for millions while raising them on very few—was nonetheless portrayed, and viewed by most Americans, as a tax hike. In parallel fashion, economic evidence suggests that Obama’s spring stimulus bill has already done some appreciable good. But according to an August Gallup poll, Americans consider it too big and are uncertain about its benefits.

Okay, he has me up to here. But I'm thinking, what about health care reform? Obama is in the cusp of signing the holy grail of progressivism of the last century, where Clinton failed. Isn't that a major difference? Not really, argues David:

And while Obama seems likely, as of this writing, to emerge from his first health-care fight with more to show for it than Clinton did from his, the final bill probably won’t be more than an incremental step or two forward—less like Medicare than like the 1996 Kennedy-Kassebaum Act, a now-forgotten consolation prize that Clinton garnered later in his presidency.

I have to say, this is a bizarre claim. I asked Jonathan Cohn, our resident health care expert, how he thought Kennedy-Kassebaum stacks up with Obamacare. He replied, confirming my recollection, that it was an extremely minor reform, littered with loopholes, that made only a marginal difference in extending the availability of insurance. Paul Starr, another health care expert, emails:

Kennedy-Kassebaum's provisions limiting pre-existing condition exclusions were largely ineffectual because the legislation didn't have a requirement for "guaranteed issue," which then means you also have to have an individual mandate.  Kennedy-Kassebaum was a good illustration of why Congress cannot proceed piecemeal on insurance-market reform.

Meanwhile, the health care reform that's about to be signed into law is a towering achievement. I'd argue that it's bigger than Medicare. Medicare covers more Americans (45 million) than health care reform will (31 million.) But in addition to covering the uninsured, it provides security for the currently insured, and introduces reforms that, over time, could slow the crippling rise in the cost of medical care that has eaten up wage growth and threatens to bankrupt the federal budget.

You could argue the merits of Obamacare versus Medicare. But to bracket Obamacare with Kennedy-Kassebaum is like comparing World War II to the invasion of Grenada. There's a reason Republicans are fighting health care reform like the future of the Republic depends on it.

If you're looking to minimize Obama's accomplishments vis a vis Clinton, the much better argument is that Obama has 60 Democratic Senators while Clinton only had 56. Obama also had the benefit of historical hindsight -- a party that knows the political disaster that ensues when it fails to enact its top priority. (The counterargument is that Clinton had more moderate Republicans to deal with than Obama does.) For all Clinton's mistakes, I wouldn't bet against him having passed a major health care reform in 1994 if he had a filibuster-proof majority. But, at the end of the day, health care reform is going to stand out as the sweeping historical accomplishment that Obama won and Clinton didn't.