The Clinton Playbook

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When George W. Bush takes the podium in the House tonight, he will peer into an audience of scowling, hostile faces. He will see lawmakers made bitter by the failure of his Iraq gambit, and by his call to risk compounding that failure by adding more U.S. troops to the lethal sectarian stew in Baghdad. He will see members of both the House and the Senate seething over his miscalculations, his six years of contempt for the Congress and his legacy of debt, bloated government and partisan animosity.

Then he’ll look at the Democrats, who will be smiling.

In late 1994 and early 1995, President Clinton was in free fall. His aides despaired. They worried he might never recover from the shellacking the Democrats took in the 1994 mid-term elections. His approval ratings were mired in the 30’s, and seemed unlikely to rise. When Clinton delivered his State of the Union address in January 1995, his first with Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole seated behind him as Speaker and Senate Majority Leader, he looked out at an audience of Democrats who blamed him for losing their majorities and of Republicans who were already convinced he would be a one-term president. Then he proceeded to deliver what may forever be the longest State of the Union address in history — 81 long minutes of policy prescriptions large and small. It was interminable, a seeming embarrassment. That night I spoke to a top White House adviser to the President. “We’re getting killed on this, aren’t we?” he asked. “We’re dead.”

But the public didn’t agree with the Beltway assessments of Clinton’s 1995 State of the Union address, even the ones from within his own White House. The reaction was favorable. Slowly, Clinton began the process of saving his presidency.

Twelve years later, aides to George W. Bush are studying the ways previous administrations salvaged presidencies that seemed to some to be beyond salvation. One of the lessons of the Clinton recovery, both in 1995 and later, during Monica, in 1999, is that Americans reward presidents who, even in the face of enormous distractions, focus on issues that matter to them.

Which is why, according to leaked previews, Bush won’t spend much time tonight talking about surging troops in Iraq or the Global War on Terror. Instead, he’ll put forward what for him will be progressive and bold policy proposals on health care, the environment and immigration reform.

Initial reactions to the specifics of Bush’s health care proposal have been tepid at best. But there’s a chance he will be rewarded by viewers for finally addressing an issue that matters deeply to Americans all across the country struggling to deal with the cost of health insurance. The same may be true on global warming, an issue once dismissed by the Bush White House as the preoccupation of liberal elitists alone. Immigration is riskier, but the potential payoff — a grand compromise between pragmatists in both parties — could add a glimmer of shine to Bush’s badly tarnished legacy.

And yet, with polls showing his approval rating only falling further since the mid-terms, and with his own party in rebellion over his plans to send more troops into Iraq, Bush’s attempts to change the subject tonight may fail even as they mirror the successes of some of his predecessors. His plight is so dire, and his fate so inextricably tied to one issue, that no matter what he proposes tonight, he is unlikely to lighten the public’s sour mood, about him or the state of the union he governs.