Now Obama has to decide whether he will govern from the center or from the left. In 1993, Bill Clinton faced the exact same decision, also over an economic stimulus package. His Congressional allies from his own party wanted him to fill the package with every manner of pork spending they wanted. They promised him undying support, but Clinton realized that, if he followed their lead, he would get no Republicans.
The united opposition of the House Republicans to the Obama package sent the same message to the new president. And his inability to collect enough votes in the Senate, despite his top heavy majority, amplifies it.
Clinton chose to stay within his own party. He didn’t dare cross the various left wing interest groups, each insisting on its own piece of the spending pie and was not confident that the Republicans would support him in any event. He was worried about trying to appease the GOP but not getting enough votes on the right to offset the ones he was losing on the left. More permanently, he was not willing to move out of the pocket and become a scrambler. Like a well protected quarterback, he opted to stay in the pocket and not stray outside on his own.
If Obama follows Clinton’s course, the results will be predictable. The stimulus package will be defeated. It will become less and less popular every day as voters crack it open to see the pork spending inside. Americans do not agree, as they did not in 1993, that spending is the way to end a recession. Tax cuts, maybe, spending never.
If Obama strays from Clinton’s course and moves to the center, courting Republican votes, he will lose Democratic support even as he begs for GOP backing. The Republicans will drive a hard bargain, demanding a smaller package than Obama wants and less spending that the Democrats crave. And, if Obama follows the GOP’s lead, he will alienate his party and won’t be able to count on them down the line.
So what should Obama do? He should move to the center. To ostracize the Republicans will force him to depend upon an ever more liberal group of Democrats, pushing him further and further to the left. In 1995, President Clinton told me “I had moved so far to the left I didn’t recognize myself.” With each lurch to the left, Obama will lose popularity and, as his political horizon narrows, erode his capacity to govern.
But if Obama uses his popularity to force his party to accommodate enough Republicans to govern from the center, he will have a successful presidency. The logic of bipartisanship will lead him to make decisions that are popular with the voters as a whole, even if they strain his support on the left.
Whichever decision he makes – to move to the center or to the left – will set in motion a self-fulfilling prophesy. It will determine the course of his presidency. If he chooses wrong, he will wind up where Clinton did in 1994, losing Congress and his popularity. He could always recover as Clinton did, but how much better not to repeat the same mistakes as almost doomed the last Democratic presidency.