What Obama Should Say After the Midterms

Pete Souza / White House-Corbis

The morning after the ’94 election, White House staffers gathered in the Roosevelt Room to assess the damage. Republicans had taken back control of the Senate and gained the majority in the House for the first time in 40 years. An aide read the names of the Democrats who had lost. “It was like the tolling of the bells,” says William Galston, a former domestic policy adviser to Bill Clinton. Gasps followed the names of some of the fallen, lawmakers they couldn’t believe were defeated, including the Democratic speaker, Tom Foley, and a 21-term House member from Texas, Jack Brooks.

Unlike this election cycle, where for months Democrats have been bracing for bad news, the Clinton White House was taken almost wholly by surprise. Bill Clinton had taken office as the country emerged from a recession, and the unemployment rate was going down. But incomes hadn’t yet gone up, and as Clinton barnstormed the country telling people his economic plan was working, people resented it, and thought he was selling them a bill of goods. By ’96, when he faced reelection, he could make the argument, since by then it was believable; in ’94 it wasn’t, and voters punished the Democrats.

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After the Democratic rout in ’94, Republicans (and some Democrats) saw Clinton as a one-term president. Clinton had to reaffirm his relevance, reminding reporters that he headed a coequal branch to the one now controlled by the GOP, and that for all the ballyhoo about the newly ascendant Speaker Newt Gingrich, he was still president. “Pathetic” is how Galston remembers that press conference. Yet Clinton rebounded, and how he managed his political resurrection is a story that could have been taken from Kenny Rogers, and offers lessons for the current president: “You got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, know when to walk away, know when to run.”

By distinguishing between the hands he had to hold and the hands he had to fold, says Galston, now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, Clinton won a high-stakes budget battle with the newly emboldened Republicans, and he signed a compromise welfare-reform bill that angered his base and cost him professional as well as personal relationships. Two top aides working on welfare policy resigned, including Peter Edelman, whose wife, Marion Wright Edelman at the Children’s Defense Fund, had been Hillary Clinton’s mentor. Republican Bob Dole, whom Clinton handily defeated in ’96, has acknowledged that the president signing that welfare-reform bill was the single biggest blow to his campaign, removing a potent wedge issue that the GOP had been using against Democrats since Ronald Reagan popularized the welfare queen.

How President Obama adjusts to the new reality on Capitol Hill will determine not only his reelection chances, but the staying power of the progressive agenda that he has begun to put in place. Whatever happens on Election Day, it’s evident that Obama will have to find a new legislative strategy. With Maine Republican Olympia Snowe sure to face a Tea Party challenge from the right, she’ll be less inclined to join the Democrats on anything. With perhaps six or eight fewer Democrats in the Senate, Obama will have to reach deep into Republican ranks to get votes; he won’t be able to pick off one, two, or three Republicans the way he did to get health-care and financial reform passed.

That means the road ahead is either all-out deadlock, or the two parties will have to relate to each other differently. Galston takes the Republicans at their word: if they win the House majority, they’ll focus on tax cuts, especially for small business—but they won’t stop there. They’ll mount a selected assault on health-care reform, blocking appropriations to implement the legislation and doing what they can to undermine the individual mandate and promote their pet causes, tort reform and cross-state selling of insurance. And they’ll try to ramp up restrictions on any funding of abortions. On the budget, they’ll try to cap spending without touching the Pentagon and they’ll put a hiring freeze on federal workers—and to satisfy the Tea Party, they’ll invoke the Constitution at every turn, whether they need to or not.

Obama has some cards to play too. With the bipartisan fiscal commission reporting in December, he is expected to advance serious proposals on how to curb the deficit, which will make that issue less of a flash point for the GOP. On the jobs front, Obama may find a more willing GOP to partner with on infrastructure, and with incumbent Democrats in Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio, and Wisconsin facing reelection in 2012, Obama will push for a more sustained focus on manufacturing and increasing U.S. exports.

Obama’s second State of the Union, which he will deliver early next year, will be his chance to plant a flag for what he is prepared to fight for, and to frame the argument as Clinton did in his first State of the Union after being handed a major defeat by the Republicans. Delivering what was then the longest one on record (81 minutes), Clinton paraphrased Walt Whitman, saying he heard America not only singing but screaming, then went on to confidently restate the principles that got him elected in the first place. Getting back to basics could work for Obama, too.

Eleanor Clift is also the author of  Two Weeks of Life: A Memoir of Love, Death, and Politics and Founding Sisters and the Nineteenth Amendment.