Obama Style Harkens to Bill
By: Wall Street Journal
Like Clinton in ’92, To Win, He Must Prove His Substance
The Democrats have a candidate who is re-running Bill Clinton’s successful 1992 presidential campaign this year. Oddly enough, it isn’t the candidate named Clinton.
It is Barack Obama who 16 years later has adopted the profile and message of Bill Clinton’s breakthrough campaign. So far, that has worked fairly well, as shown by the Illinois senator’s victory in the Iowa caucuses last week and a strong showing in yesterday’s New Hampshire primary, where he finished just behind Sen. Hillary Clinton.
The two now seem headed into a potentially prolonged, head-to-head struggle for the nomination. The question is whether Mr. Obama can match the Bill Clinton 1992 effort in substantive as well as stylistic terms in the weeks ahead.
Consider the similarities: Bill Clinton ran in 1992 as the candidate of change. “Make no mistake,” he said in announcing his candidacy, “this election is about change: in our party, in our national leadership, and in our country.”
Mr. Obama runs just as overtly as Mr. Clinton did as the candidate of change. In his announcement speech, he declared that “few obstacles can withstand the power of millions of voices calling for change.”
At age 45, Bill Clinton ran as the vanguard of a new baby-boom generation of political leaders. At age 46, Mr. Obama is running as the vanguard of a new post-baby-boom generation of political leaders.
Bill Clinton campaigned as “the man from Hope,” and he was talking about more than the name of his hometown in Arkansas. Mr. Obama uses the word “hope” just as prominently in explaining what he has to offer. After winning the Iowa caucuses, he declared: “Hope is what led me here today.”
Bill Clinton offered a middle-class tax cut as a centerpiece of his economic plan then; Mr. Obama does so now. Bill Clinton distanced himself from both the Republican Party and parts of his own Democratic Party to create an image of centrism and independence. Mr. Obama, in similar terms, presents himself as a “post-partisan” politician who will govern beyond the boundaries of the two parties.
“Clinton was the change campaign” in 1992, says Obama spokesman Bill Burton, who says his candidate has seized that mantle.
All that has helped transform Mr. Obama from long shot to strong contender. But it also brings him to a moment of challenge. So far, the Obama effort has been more about promise than policy.
The longer Mr. Obama is viewed as a potential president, the more “What would you do once in office?” will become a less hypothetical question, and voters and critics alike will expect his answers to be more specific and detailed.
More than that, Bill Clinton in 1992 managed to stake out a policy middle ground, most notably on trade and welfare, that gave Republicans a compelling reason to want to join him. It is less clear that Mr. Obama has done that, particularly when his own record tilts more toward the liberal side.
Mr. Obama’s camp contends that he has laid out plenty of policy details for those who have been paying attention, or who want to look now. “He led the way on a plan for Iraq, on reforming ethics, on energy independence, on a plan to get every American health coverage,” Mr. Burton says. And, indeed, there are plenty of meaty position papers out there.
Still, Mr. Obama’s supporters privately say they realize their candidate will have to make some thoughtful policy speeches in coming weeks to show he offers steak as well as sizzle.
At this point, though, Mr. Obama’s success in framing a message similar to the one that worked for the last successful Democratic presidential candidate raises two more immediate questions: Why is this working, and why is it working for somebody other than Hillary Clinton?
It is working in part because there are significant similarities between the national political climates of 1992 and 2008. Polling in recent months has shown that both pessimism about the economy and unease about the country’s overall course are at virtually the same low levels last seen in 1992.
Voters were grumpy then because a Republican president and a Democratic Congress didn’t seem to know what to do about it all. Today, they are grumpy about the inability of a Republican president and a Democratic Congress to find common ground. Put simply, voter anxieties and lack of confidence in the system that governs them are similar to those last found when Bill Clinton made his successful presidential bid.
“I think ’08 is ’92 in extremis,” concludes Douglas Sosnik, a onetime top political aide to Bill Clinton.
Recreating the Profile
Beyond that, it is simply, and ironically, easier for Mr. Obama than for Hillary Clinton to re-create the profile her husband struck in 1992. That is hardly because of any lack of know-how or experience in her campaign; some significant players from 1992 are with the current Clinton effort. (The Obama campaign’s chief strategist, David Axelrod, also helped in Bill Clinton campaigns.)
Hillary Clinton’s experience and long prominence in the American public eye are among the chief assets she brings to the fight that lies ahead, but they don’t allow her to campaign as the same fresh face or vehicle for generational change that Mr. Obama can claim to be. And she can hardly be seen as parroting her husband, which would undermine her own stature as the most-serious female presidential contender yet.
Write to Gerald F. Seib at firstname.lastname@example.org
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