How Will Obama React? The Clinton ’94 Example

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The big drama right now is just how large the GOP’s gains will be. The consensus seems to be a House pickup in the 5560 range, roughly, and 6-8 seats in the Senate, leaving Democrats with a narrow and largely unworkable majority in that chamber. (Jon Chait has some sociological complaints with those forecasts.) But I’m also very curious to see how Barack Obama will respond to the coming Republican wave in his just-announced Wednesday afternoon presser. How much humility will he show, how much will he promise cooperation versus standing his ground?

As a reference point, here’s the transcript from Bill Clinton’s November 9, 1994 press conference, with the rubble of the old Democratic Congress–and, some thought, his presidency–freshly smoldering around him. It’s an interesting read–Clinton struck a hard note of conciliation, admitting that Democrats had not done enough to change the culture of Washington (sound familiar?) and urged Republicans to “join me in the center of the public debate where the best ideas for the next generation of American progress must come.” But he also warned against “jeopardizing this economic recovery by taking us back to the policies that failed us before.” (Sound familiar?)

The American people sent us here to rebuild the American dream, to change the way Washington does business, to make our country work for ordinary citizens again. We’ve made a good start by cutting the deficit, by reducing the size of the Federal Government, by reinventing much of our Government to do more with less. We have increased our investment in education and expanded trade, and our economy has created more than 5 million jobs. We’ve also made a serious start in the fight against the terrible plague of crime and violence in this country. I remain committed to completing the work we have done.

Still, in the course of this work, there has been too much politics-as-usual in Washington, too much partisan conflict, too little reform of Congress and the political process. And though we have made progress, not enough people have felt more prosperous and more secure or believe we were meeting their desires for fundamental change in the role of Government in their lives….

To those who believe we must keep moving forward, I want to say again, I will do everything in my power to reach out to the leaders and the Members of this new Congress. It must be possible to make it a more effective, more functioning institution. It must be possible for us to give our people a Government that is smaller, that is more effective, that reflects both our interests and our values.

But to those who would use this election to turn us back, let me say this: I will do all in my power to keep anyone from jeopardizing this economic recovery by taking us back to the policies that failed us before. I will still work for those things that make America strong: strong families, better education, safer streets, more high-paying jobs, a more prosperous and peaceful world. There is too much at stake for our children and our future to do anything else.

I suspect Obama will take as much care as Clinton to show humility in the wake of Tuesday’s results. But I would expect less talk of the political “center”–a place Bill Clinton has always been more comfortable openly celebrating.

P.S. And contrary to my memory, it wasn’t until April 1995 that Clinton was reduced to his famous assertion that “the President is still relevant here.”

Update: Greg Sargent adds useful thoughts about why Obama is less likely than Clinton to embrace centrism. (“Obama has always preferred to cast himself as a uniter more in terms of temperament than ideology.”) Also see Ron Brownstein.