The One Reason Why Hillary Might Be More Effective Than Obama After 2012

Yesterday the New York Times finally jumped into the Hillary for President debate with this piece by Rebecca Traister.  So now I guess it’s a legitimate news story! Citing the Daily Beast article by Leslie Bennetts , which in turns draws heavily on my initial “Run, Hillary, Run” post, Traister – a Clinton supporter in 2008 – tries down to tamp the growing buyer’s remorse she detects among Obama supporters.  She writes: “Rather than reveling in these flights of reverse political fancy, I find myself wanting the revisionist Hillary fantasists — Clintonites and reformed Obamamaniacs alike — to just shut up already.” Traister argues, persuasively in my view, that had Clinton won the presidency in 2008 instead of Obama, there’s no compelling evidence suggesting she would have been any more effective. In this she echoes points made by Jonathan Bernstein in this Salon post. To be sure, Traister admits to her own bouts of buyer’s remorse, but she thinks publicly airing these thoughts is not helpful: “I understand the impulse to indulge in a quick ‘I told you so.’ I would be lying if I said I didn’t think it sometimes. Maybe often. But to say it — much less to bray it — is small, mean, divisive and frankly dishonest. None of us know what would have happened with Hillary Clinton as president, no matter how many rounds of W.W.H.H.D. (What Would Hillary Have Done) we play.”

Traister’s conclusion? “There simply was never going to be a liberal messiah whose powers could transcend the limits set by a democracy this packed with regressive obstructionists. That doesn’t mean we can’t hope for, seek and demand better from politicians and presidents. But we can’t spend our time focused on alternate realities in which our country, its systems and its climate are not what they are. With advance apologies for returning to one of 2008’s most infelicitous phrases, it’s time to let go of the fairy tales.”

Amen to that! It’s a point that long-time readers will recognize from reading my posts on this site dating to before Obama’s inauguration: that the expectations for his presidency far outstripped the reality of his actual ability to effect significant change. Although we can’t be sure, given the constraints on a president’s power, it’s hard to see how Hillary Clinton’s election in 2008 would have produced demonstrably different policy outcomes.

 But who is talking about what happened in 2008?  My “Run, Hillary, Run” post was about Democrats and voters more generally looking ahead to 2012!  And here there is one very good reason to believe that a Clinton presidency might be marginally more effective than Obama’s second term: she would not be a lame duck president.  Recent history suggests that, should Obama win reelection in 2012 (and that is no sure thing), he will almost immediately begin losing political influence. Presidents Nixon, Reagan, Clinton and Bush all witnessed their influence slip away during their second terms.  For Nixon, of course, the Watergate scandal and impending impeachment drove him from office. Reagan’s second term saw some accomplishments, including fundamental tax reform, but he frittered away a good deal of influence due to the Iran-contra affair. Clinton, of course, had his own second term impeachment imbroglio.  Finally, George W. Bush – Mr. Imperial Presidency – found out in short order that the political capital he pledged to spend after the 2004 election bought him little in Congress. Despite an extensive publicity tour, he was unable to get even fellow Republicans to buy into his plan to reform Social Security or immigration law, and within two years the Democrats had regained control of both the Senate and the House, thanks in part to an unpopular war and Hurricane Katrina.  In the aggregate, then, this is not a very auspicious second-term record, and while there’s no reason to expect Obama to find himself engulfed in scandal should he win reelection, neither is there any strong reason to believe he’ll defy the historical pattern and see his influence grow.  Instead, the greater likelihood is that it will begin to wane.

The reason for this seemingly inevitable decline is, I think, more structural than personal.  It has to do with the loss of political acuity that accompanies the removal of the reelection imperative.  Presidents begin to think historically,  and, in some cases, recklessly as well.  They see the end of their presidency on the horizon, and they are willing to take risks and to downplay the political constraints that they must normally navigate to achieve policy objectives.  Think FDR with his second-term court packing fiasco. (Although not subject to the 22nd amendment the expectation – one shared by FDR – was that he was not going to run again.)  Bush experienced a similar dulling of his political sensitivity.  He writes in his memoirs that he made a mistake in  pushing social security reform before immigration reform, since the latter had a greater chance of securing bipartisan support.  The failure of the first doomed the second, he believes.  He writes, “If I had to do it all over again, I would have pushed for immigration reform, rather than Social Security, as the first major initiative of my second term”.    Instead, he went for the riskier reform first, and lost both.

It is possible Obama may be the exception to this rule.   But we shouldn’t count on it.  Nor, however, should we expect a Clinton first-term to be a reprise of FDR’s celebrated 100 days.  We don’t want to fall prey again to the overly optimistic “liberal messiah” scenario.  Instead, in concert with Traister’s argument, I would expect a Clinton first-term to be perhaps even less productive, legislatively, than Obama’s first four years, in large part because she would likely be facing a Republican-controlled Congress.  The one advantage she might have is that economic growth may start accelerating during her four years. All this is speculation, of course.  The takeaway point is that, in deciding whether to jump on the Hillary bandwagon, Traister’s is the wrong question.  It’s not “What Would Hillary Have Done”?  It’s what can she do, in her first term, compared to Obama in his second?

(Note: the original post was updated at 1 p.m. to expand on the discussion of second-term presidencies)



  1. This is an interesting angle. It hadn’t occurred to me to factor in the Lame Duck element one finds with a President’s second term. And, if I’m reading correctly, if a President in his second term is a bit more hamstrung, in some ways, than he was in his first, it might be necessary to shift gears in order to move out of this ditch, to shamelessly borrow from 2010.

    As far as Hillary not being as successful legislatively in her first four years as Obama was, I think you’re right. I don’t know if she’d pile her plate full with a legislative wish list and try to cram it through in, perhaps, an effort to impress. I imagine she’d focus like a laser on unemployment. On getting people back to work. And once those gears were put in motion and people were going back to work, she’d probably pivot to fixing the more unappetizing aspects of Obama’s Health Care law.

    But it’s all speculative at this point, isn’t it? And, despite Miss Traister’s assertion that we, in essence, drop it and just support Obama already, the What If conversation is apparently a necessary one and growing in strength day by day.

    One thing which isn’t speculative, though, is Hillary’s proven ability to stand strong in the face of Republican opposition and move through legislation in a truly bipartisan manner without selling out her Party or her Base. Her work ethic is unquestionable, her familiarity with how politics at this level work is by now second nature, and I suspect, with those qualities alone, she has a chance at being more effective than the current Administration has been.

  2. And Matt, to add a comparativist piece to this, it is hard, worldwide, to find very many second term presidencies that have been effective, and nearly as productive as first terms, where second terms are allowed. The only recent exception that I can find to this is in Brazil, when Lula da Silva (despite some challenges in his reelection, mostly focused on corruption allegations) had an enormously successful second term, and left office with an 80% approval rating…something I imagine is probably unprecendented. An exception to prove the rule.

    Just wanted to throw in a little international twist, just for fun…

  3. Jeff,

    Thanks for the comparative angle – it is always helpful. I suspect another reason for the lack of legislative productivity and general perception of declining effectiveness in second terms is because the high priority issues on which, presumably, there is more support for change, are addressed first, leaving the more divisive, contentious issues for the second term.

  4. Kick,

    Tell me how HRC would “focus like a laser” on unemployment.

    Tell me what she would do? Fiscal stimulus? Ooops. Can’t get it through Congress. Lower interest rates? Not her call. Tax cuts?

    You are going to see Obama focus on jobs now because he has no choice. Can he do anything? I think he can take a payroll tax cut straight to the people. Will it change aggregate demand? Who knows. President can cheerlead but there’s not much they can do to effect immediate change.

    Honestly, the only people on this blog with buyer’s remorse are people who desperately wanted HRC in 2008. That’s not buyers remorse.

  5. It seems to me that most of the discussion centers around whether HRC would have been more effective than Obama has been, or if she might be in the near future. Given the political environment coupled to a vexing economic situation, and the limitations of the power of the office, I doubt there would be, or will be, major differences in outcomes.

    From my perspective as a Democrat, the question is whether HRC has a higher likelihood of beating the Republican Presidential nominee than President Obama.

  6. Peter – You are probably correct that the limits on presidential power make it unlikely that there would be a huge difference in outcomes between a second-term Obama vs. first-term Clinton presidency, although I did try to make the case why, in theory, a first-term Clinton presidency might, at the margins, be a bit more effective. But the answer to the question who would be more effective might possibly be correlated – at least for some voters – with whether Clinton has a higher likelihood than Obama of beating the Republican, does it not?.

  7. Hi Adam,

    Despite the subtly combative tone of your question, I’m happy to offer my thoughts.

    I don’t know what, exactly, President Hillary Clinton would do. In fact, I don’t know if anyone knows, exactly, how to fix the economy. Not even our current President, a depressing thought if there ever was one.

    What I do know — and what can’t be denied, even by her most ardent detractors — is Hillary has shown time and again an ability to “focus like a laser beam” on an issue and follow-through with the often back-breaking work to get it done, often in the face of fierce, very public opposition. Obama does not. He “pivots”, makes a speech, forms a committee and then tells them to get to work, checking in periodically to tell them to work faster. This is something Hillary has shown she doesn’t do.

    In fact, one can easily see throughout her decades in public service an almost reflexive desire to happily embrace the exhausting effort it take to get things done. Barring election season posturing and running for office, one is hard pressed to find that same desire — even reluctantly — from Obama.

    So, in envisioning a Hillary Clinton Presidency in 2012 — and, really, this is all this is as who knows what’ll happen at the end of the day –, I have no doubt the work ethic surrounding the WH and the Administration would be vastly different than what we see now. And, frankly, we need that “laser like” focus on the unemployment crisis — and it is a crisis, something the current WH just doesn’t seem to get.

    Just my two cents.

  8. Buyers remorse or just plain good sense. You are right in that I wanted Hillary for President but I embraced the Obama campaign and donated more than I ever have to a political race. I never quite believed, but I wanted to. I was disappointed quite early but it wasn´t like…we should have Hillary it was more like, O Barack don´t waste your time feeding cookies to the Republicans….

    By calling it buyers remorse I think you belittle the problem we will have in keeping the White House in 2012.

  9. kicksotic:

    One thing which isn’t speculative, though, is Hillary’s proven ability to stand strong in the face of Republican opposition and move through legislation in a truly bipartisan manner without selling out her Party or her Base.

    Hillary has shown time and again an ability to “focus like a laser beam” on an issue and follow-through with the often back-breaking work to get it done, often in the face of fierce, very public opposition.


    Her Wikipedia page credits her with improving the Patriot Act. The other things listed there seem routine and popular, like the WTC memorial, and money for veterans.

  10. Sorry, I didn’t close the tag properly on the last post. The first two lines quote Kicksotic. The last two are mine.

  11. Good question. As I’m traveling, I’ll offer just a few examples to underscore her noted ability to work and work hard.

    Going as far back as Arkansas when she was the Chair of the Rural Advisory Committee, she was (irritatingly) instrumental in bringing health care and emergency health care to the poor who lived in rural communities. She fought for a solid year against entrenched interests — and was often told to be a good wife and just shut the hell up by the wall of misogyny that met her — to make this happen and, to her credit and against the political/sexist odds — remember, Arkansas in the ’70s –, it did.

    The Health Care Bill, as First Lady in 1993, was entirely in her hands. Unlike Obama, she didn’t fob it off to a committee and check in periodically to urge them to work faster. She was waist deep in information, surrounded by doctors and patients and hospital administrators, crafting the Bill page by page, again in the face of unrelenting criticism and outright vicious attacks. Yet, still, she created something which would have been more patient friendly than what Obama passed.

    Had she allowed the Insurance Companies in the room — or even to sit at the head of the table like Obama did and, through their cronies in Congress, write the Bill –, there might not have been an ad campaign costing millions against it and it might have been allowed to come up for a vote. But she chose the counsel of doctors, patients, and hospitals, and paid for it politically in the end.

    But no one questioned the back-breaking work she did and some even offered her credit, begrudgingly, for it.

    In the Senate, which is more glacially procedural than most of us realize, many of the Bills she introduced or co-sponsored had to do with Children and Children’s Health, an obvious holdover from her years in Arkansas, though she was also a major force in extending Health Care to Reservists and National Guard members.

    As Senator she was also the first New Yorker to ever sit on the Committee on Armed Services, an esteemed position on an important committee and an indication of the respect she had earned.

    Though not rich in Bills — and, frankly, there aren’t many Senators who get much through to begin with, an indication of how ineffective our government can be –, it’s often publicly noted how impressed former detractors were with her hard work, her intelligence, her preparedness, and how well she worked with others, even those who used to despise her. No one questioned how hard she worked or the focus she brought to the issues in front of her.

    So, those are a few brief examples admittedly from memory (so my apologies if I missed something or got a year wrong or something).

    If you could find similar examples illustrating Obama’s acknowledged and impressive habit of working hard and being respected for said work in his 11 years as State Senator and his two years as US Senator — hell, I’d even take anecdotes from his time at Harvard –, I’d appreciate it.

  12. @Atadam,

    You raise a good point: at this moment support for Obama among Democrats remains high, although it has begun to slip in recent weeks. But it’s not clear that the slippage is translating into support for a Hillary candidacy among those Democrats who voted for Obama in 2008. However, there is polling evidence suggesting that progressives are disappointed in some of Obama’s policy decisions – that, seems to me, to be evidence of buyer’s remorse, if not evidence of support for Clinton as the alternative.

  13. @kicksotic

    Thanks for the response.

    I think you’ve reversed yourself on the point that aroused my interest. It seems that Clinton’s career in the Senate doesn’t give us much reason to think she would do better than Obama at getting legislation through Congress.

  14. @ David Tomlin,

    That Hillary had a career in the Senate and was known and appreciated for being a hard worker — even John McCain after working with her in the Senate let slip in 2008 that Hillary would make a fantastic President! — already puts her in a better position than Obama in that regard.

    I’ve actually looked and have yet to find evidence of Obama putting in (or being praised for) the kind of hard work that Hillary has become (in)famous for. The pattern for some time — the entirety of his career, one could say — appears to be make a speech, call a committee, tell them to get to work, and check in every now and then to see how it’s going. It’s my opinion that this hands-off approach has led to many of his Presidential disasters, especially when it comes to how he’s viewed as a Leader.

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