Obama: Bill Clinton's Real Heir?

In 1992, the Clinton campaign came up with a theme song that evoked the message they hoped would turn a 46-year-old obscure Arkansas governor into the president of the United States: "Don't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow" by Fleetwood Mac. Now it's Barack Obama, also age 46, who has the claim on tomorrow, which is where presidential campaigns have almost always been won in this country. Hillary Clinton still has a chance to recover, but she's bucking this history. Although it would crimp his own foundation work, Bill Clinton desperately wants his wife to be president. But he knows "in his bones," as he likes to say in other contexts, that Obama may be his truest heir.

The 16 years since the Clintons grabbed control of the Democratic Party is the same amount of time that elapsed between the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1945 and John F. Kennedy's Inauguration in 1961. It's a longer period than many of us would care to admit. Kennedy operated "in the shadow of FDR," as the historian William E. Leuchtenberg put it, and he updated the New Deal to the New Frontier. But Kennedy's main argument was that "the torch has been passed to a new generation." So it is today, with the aging baby-boom generation—symbolized by the Clintons—under pressure to move aside.

But as John Edwards says (and Obama also knows, from his community-organizing days), the old order never relinquishes power without a fight. "Iowa Nice" is over. The sweet culture of the cornfields that made Hillary's weeklong attacks on Obama in late November one of the dumbest political strategies of recent years is giving way to states with a more bare-knuckle tradition. The question is how rough the Clintons and their wide circle of political operatives will get. A frantic scramble is underway to feed reporters as much negative information about Obama as possible, but it's slim pickings. I've been leaked stories—if you can call them stories—ranging from his failure to leave more of a mark while he was in college (he made up for it in law school) to his failure to hold more hearings as chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on European Affairs. Not being Eurocentric enough for the foreign-policy establishment is hardly going to sink him.

Democrats of all stripes now have a psychic interest in Obama's success. Even if they're not for him, they're proud of him and of themselves for being in his party. They will not appreciate efforts to take him out, which puts the Clinton campaign in an excruciating bind. The harder they hit Obama, the more they reinforce the impression that all their campaign is about is a grubby struggle to keep their power in the Democratic Party. Many Obama voters I spoke with in Iowa like Hillary personally but resent this sense of entitlement. It's as if they're wearing anti-FDR Democratic campaign buttons from 1940 reading: NO THIRD TERM.

The playbook for a Clinton comeback is George W. Bush's from 2000. After being crushed by John McCain in the New Hampshire primary, he stole some of McCain's message and re-fashioned himself as a "reformer with results." Hillary is now arguing that she has "the experience to make change happen." But Obama has figured out a way to parry the no-experience rap. He simply quotes Bill Clinton from 1992, when he ran against incumbent President George H.W. Bush by arguing that real-world experience was more important than long years of government service. Then he pivots to his side of the field—change.

One of the overlooked findings from the Iowa caucus entrance polls is that many Obama voters still considered Hillary Clinton the most electable Democrat. These people might have trusted their own instincts about the Clintons more. Her electability problems couldn't be more plain: to win in November, Democrats must do better with college-educated men and with independents, the two groups where Obama is strongest and Hillary is weakest. Then there's the slight problem of hatred for the Clintons being the only thing the fractious GOP base can agree on this year. Sadly for her supporters, Hillary is indeed as much of a unifier as Obama—but of Republicans.

The strange part of all this is that Hillary has been a better-than-expected presidential candidate. She is substantive and strong and, with one notable exception, a better debater so far than Obama. But overall she is only a good candidate, not a great one. Like most women in politics, she lacks a critical asset. Male candidates can establish a magnetic and often sexual connection to women in the audience. (Just watch Bill Clinton, Obama or Edwards work a rope line.) Women candidates can't use sex appeal (except in France), which leaves them playing the sisterhood card. As Hillary learned in Iowa and other women candidates for lower office have discovered to their frustration over the years, "you go girl!" appeals are worth some votes but don't make for a winning strategy.

So that leaves grit, a quality that both Clintons have in abundance. Just as there was never any chance that President Clinton would resign after revelations that he lied about an affair with Monica Lewinsky, so there is no chance that Hillary will drop out even if she's 0-4 going into Super Tuesday on Feb. 5, and little chance she will drop out after that date if she wins a couple of big states that day.

"Grit, resolve, displays of character under pressure are the keys to correcting course," says one senior Clinton adviser, who, like all those talking after her devastating loss in Iowa, spoke only on background. Bill Clinton set the template for that in 1992 as "The Comeback Kid" after he bounced back from womanizing and draft-dodging stories to finish second in New Hampshire and relaunch his campaign. The idea now is for Hillary to hunker down for a long struggle where she chips away at Obama's stature. With the media always looking for a new narrative, some upset somewhere is all but inevitable. But the Clintons' efforts to have the Democratic Party front-load the primaries (the idea being that Hillary could wrap it up quickly and concentrate on the fall campaign) has boomeranged badly. Hillary has only a month to get her groove fully back. If Walter Mondale had had to campaign with this schedule in 1984, Gary Hart would have been the nominee.

Another problem with the 1992 analogy is that Obama is no Paul Tsongas, the eat-your-peas winner of New Hampshire that year who was easy prey on Super Tuesday when he gave Clinton an opening on Social Security and Medicare. Hillary will continue her efforts to depict Obama as possessing an inferior health-care plan that lacks mandates and thus would not insure everyone. But Obama has successfully countered that you shouldn't be forced to buy something you cannot afford, and he has plenty of money to put this defense on the air.

Where Clinton might have a little more success is on the economy, which seems to be headed for a recession. Her husband managed to tap into anxiety about sluggish growth and the global economy without reverting to the anticorporate message of a John Edwards, which Clinton saw as part of the Democratic Party's past. We'll see if Obama can do that—and match it with concrete plans for the economy—but in the meantime his positions as a "New Democrat" are mostly indistinguishable from those of the Clintons. With Edwards now representing less than a third of Democrats (if Iowa, a strong union state, is to be believed), Clintonism has already been vindicated.

The Clintons themselves are a different matter. For all the talk of "Clinton Redux" or "Clinton Fatigue," another possibility might be "Clinton Irrelevance"—where Bill is beloved as an elder statesman and global citizen with much to contribute (his foundation has already raised hundreds of millions to fight AIDS and other global afflictions), and Hillary settles in as a widely respected senator.

In that scenario, the Clintons are part of America's past and present but not at the center of its future. Tomorrow belongs to someone else—perhaps another Arkansas native of "a place called Hope" (Mike Huckabee) or an already historical figure from Illinois with the audacity to give new life to some of the Clintons' old dreams.