The Obama second term — doing the Clintonian pivot

Last week on the ABC Sunday morning news program “This Week,” Rahm Emanuel, the mayor of Chicago, was asked about what to expect in an Obama second term if he is reelected on Nov. 6. 

Emanuel, the mayor of Chicago, mentioned President Clinton and his policies twice in his answer — the last time stating, explicitly, “Barack Obama has built policies on the same premises that President Clinton had, investing in America and strengthening America’s foundation, its people, and its economic bedrock.”

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Emanuel is right — and he should know. He is the only man in America who was a senior adviser and White House official for both President Clinton and President Obama, serving as the former’s political adviser and President Obama’s chief of staff. 

He knows what I have been writing for the last three years — that in his heart, Obama, like Clinton, is a pragmatic liberal who seeks centrist solutions. Like Bill Clinton, he sees nuances between left and right, is a believer in free markets over government command and control and instinctively seeks a third way to solve problems rather than allowing the ideological purists and nihilists on the extremes to effect stalemate by way of their demonization of each other. 

Unfortunately, as Clinton got stuck (wrongly) with the “too liberal” tag in his first term — due to his pushing the healthcare plan that so resembles the plan Obama succeeded in passing — so too did Obama engender this false perception, especially by thoughtful conservatives too quick to accept labels over facts. 

Let’s take the landmark achievement of Obama’s first term — the Affordable Care Act (ACA), now widely known as “ObamaCare.” In contrast to the depiction of the ACA as a “government takeover,” the facts are the opposite. The ACA establishes an all-private insurance system, purchased on an open Web-based marketplace (called an “exchange”) — the epitome of the free market that conservatives proclaim as their ideological foundation.  

It is true that these exchanges are to be run by states (or if they refuse, by the federal government). But this too is a conservative principle — the devolution of state power and autonomy that is the epitome of conservative principles of federalism and preference to state over federal power. 

And the Obama administration’s Department of Health and Human Services approved allowing private-sector Web-based entities to sell insurance to tax-subsidized lower- and middle-income families who can’t afford it without help — recognizing the vital role of for-profit companies in enrolling the maximum number of tax-subsidized individuals, along with the state-based exchanges.

And note: Barack Obama supported a system with no public option. The notion that this healthcare system is socialistic or tantamount to a government takeover is utter nonsense. In fact, Obama opted for the private sector-government partnerships, with an emphasis on maintaining private medicine, patient choice and private insurance company competition that is, in combination, a system based on conservative principles. 

That is no accident. This system was first proposed by conservative think tanks in the 1990s.

So there should be no surprise that Democrats supporting Barack Obama see his second term as an opportunity to further emphasize his Clintonian-centrist roots. He no longer has to throw red meat to the extremists in the Democratic Party base who use the language of hate and venom on the Internet and on cable TV panels. 

He no longer has to turn over the keys to domestic initiatives to those who would spend with credit cards, piling up our national debt without regard for the morality of leaving these bills to be paid by our children and grandchildren. 

He can finally — as he recently indicated — take leadership to achieve the Grand Bargain to reduce the debt by specifically embracing the Simpson-Bowles commission’s across-the-board approach of spending cuts, corporate tax cuts, elimination of most business tax loopholes and major Social Security and Medicare reform. 

President Obama asked President Clinton to deliver his nominating speech at the convention for a reason. He wanted to remind the nation that his administration has been a continuation of the Clinton record of consensus, fiscal responsibility, social moderation and, most important, proof that a Democratic president can be pro-business, pro-private-sector and progressive at the same time.

If President Obama can deliver that Clintonian “third way” message in the final week of this campaign, I believe he will win the election on Nov. 6.

Davis, the principal in the Washington law firm of Lanny J. Davis & Associates, which specializes in legal crisis management, served as President Clinton’s special counsel (1996-98) and as a member of President George W. Bush’s Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (2006-07). He currently serves as special counsel to Dilworth Paxson and is a partner with former Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele in Purple Nation Solutions, a public affairs-strategic communications company. He is the author of the forthcoming book Crisis Tales – Five Rules for Handling Scandal in Business, Politics and Life, to be published by Simon & Schuster. He can be followed on Twitter @LannyDavis.