Using Partisanship As a Weapon: What Obama Can Learn From Clinton, Nixon


After campaigning on post-partisan change, President Barack Obama finds himself embroiled in partisan rancor. Throughout his first term in office, the president has often struck a conciliatory tone in hopes of receiving bi-partisan support, which has weakened support from his base and increased partisan attacks bent on making him a one-term president.

Obama sees across-the-aisle collaboration as working towards common good. In a climate in which Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky) has openly admitted that his primary goal is defeating the president, however, Obama should understand that the time to vie for support from the opposition is over. Ironically, in order to accomplish his bipartisan goals, Obama must learn from past presidents who actually exploited partisanship in order to promote their agendas.

Obama is not the first president to campaign on centrism or bi-partisanship. His predecessor, George W. Bush, promised compassionate conservatism before veering strongly to the right on foreign policy, social security, and financial regulation. But of those who have made centrism a goal once in office, President Bill Clinton stands out.  The Arkansas governor campaigned on a platform of traditional hard conservative approaches towards crime coupled with liberal policies on education and the environment. In office, he enacted stricter gun laws and strengthened environmental protection and the education system.

Though Clinton was at times questioned by his own party, his ability to expose partisanship allowed him to ride bi-partisan support to ultimately push his policies forward. For example, after Clinton suffered a severe setback in the 1994 midterm elections, newly-christened speaker of the house Newt Gingrich went to work trying to pass his monumental Contract with America, which included a balanced budget amendment. As the 1995 fiscal year came to a close, the Republican-controlled Congress had yet to put together a budget.

Republicans favored cutting government spending to balance the budget, while Clinton wanted to pass education, Medicare, and environmental bills. When Gingrich refused to allow a routine debt increase, Clinton called his bluff and let the federal government shut down for four weeks over two months until a deal was brokered. Although the public blamed Clinton initially, Gingrich came off looking like a partisan hack willing to shut down the country to get his agenda passed. As a result, Clinton’s ratings soared, while America soured on Gingrich.

Fast forward to 1998 when budget talks came up again, Clinton leveraged his popularity to get a combination of tax increases and necessary spending cuts to balance the budget, a lesson Obama must learn if he is to pass his domestic agenda.

Too often, Obama has been willing to let the partisans control him. Instead of calling out a House that seems bent on destroying America’s currency, and exposing to the American public how they would be willing to destroy our nation for ideology alone, Obama has succumbed to their brinkmanship; it was Obama who took the blame for the debt showdown and downgrade, a fact which has cost him support from both sides.

On many issues, Obama has alternated between left and right in ways that have upset his liberal base. Re-signing the Bush tax cuts, allowing off-shore drilling, and increasing airport security are a handful of the conservative policies Obama has pursued to the detriment of his base, without winning over his opposition.

If Obama is to be re-elected, he must learn how to bring to light partisan attacks in order to make the case for his policies. Otherwise Obama’s tenure will end in November 2012 amidst lukewarm support from his base and heated attacks from his loyal opposition.

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