President Clinton’s 1995 State of the Union address to a GOP-controlled House shows how President Obama might cement his status as the new comeback kid.
After Democrats were thoroughly trounced in the midterms just two years after his own election, Clinton used his address to call for deficit cuts, a more civil tone in politics and a return to making the American Dream a real possibility for all.
The White House is hoping the political symmetry will continue with Obama’s reelection in 2012.
Clinton in 1995 called for the New Covenant, an agreement that lawmakers would work on behalf of the people to cut government’s size and make it more responsible to Americans. Obama’s 2011 speech is themed “Winning the Future,” and is focused on making a direct appeal to lawmakers and the nation on the need to enhance the country’s global competitiveness.
After a brutal healthcare battle that contributed to his party losing control of Congress, Clinton used his address to position himself at the political center, calling for responsible tax cuts, a balanced budget and welfare reform.
Bruised by his own healthcare fight, Obama has sought the center since the day after the election, and is widely expected to talk Tuesday about trade, tax reform and deficit-cutting that can win him fans in both parties.
White House aides weren’t saying Monday whether Obama looked to Clinton’s address for guidance, but Obama did seek the former president’s counsel at the White House not long after the midterms.
In December, Obama held court with Clinton for a 90-minute meeting where they talked about what it is like to deal with a Republican Congress. In an unprecedented appearance in the White House briefing room with Obama, Clinton told reporters his advice to the president would stay private.
“I have a general rule, which is that whatever he asked me about my advice and whatever I say should become public only if he decides to make it public,” Clinton said.
But the former president commented on the familiar position in which Obama finds himself. Clinton said that in 1994, both parties needed to work together, and that after the election that year, he and Republicans found themselves “in the same boat,” just like Obama and today’s GOP-controlled House.
“So we’re going to either row or sink,” Obama said. “And I want us to row.”
Some passages from Clinton’s 1995 address seem as if they could be lifted verbatim by Obama, if he wishes.
The most obvious is Clinton’s repeated call for civility in the nation’s political discourse.
“Citizens are working together less and shouting at each other more,” Clinton said in 1995. “The common bonds of community which have been the great strength of our country from its very beginning are badly frayed.”
The impetus for Clinton’s call for civility was the knock-down, drag-out fight in the midterms that saw Republicans retake the House. For Obama, it is the attempted assassination of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) that left six people dead and prompted a debate about political rhetoric.
At a memorial service for the victims of the Arizona shooting, Obama made a call for civility in politics he is expected to repeat on Tuesday night.
“At a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized, at a time when we are far too eager to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who think differently than we do, it’s important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds,” Obama said.
Like Clinton, Obama faces Republicans who have come to power promising to bring government back to size.
But Clinton — much like Obama has done in recent days — made clear that he would not sign on to deficit cuts that might hurt an economic recovery that was nowhere near as steep as the one Obama is shepherding.
Clinton was also clear that any attempts by Republicans to balance the budget or cut the deficit should not include cuts to Social Security — a familiar position for Obama, whose deficit commission recommended just that.
There is one big difference in the addresses, however.
Clinton enjoyed a far more favorable economic outlook than Obama, who remains saddled with a 9.4 percent national unemployment rate.
Clinton had some numbers to brag about in 1995: “We have almost 6 million new jobs since I became president, and we have the lowest combined rate of unemployment and inflation in 25 years,” he said at the time.