The Hard Work of Governing…

In the early morning on Wednesday, all the talk was about bringing the country together. Mitt Romney, in his concession speech, said,

“The nation, as you know, is at a critical point. At a time like this, we can’t risk partisan bickering and political posturing. Our leaders have to reach across the aisle to do the people’s work.”

Obama Victory Speech

President Obama also struck a unifying tone in his victory speech:

“A long campaign is now over. And whether I earned your vote or not, I have listened to you, I have learned from you, and you’ve made me a better president…

“Tonight you voted for action, not politics as usual. You elected us to focus on your jobs, not ours. And in the coming weeks and months, I am looking forward to reaching out and working with leaders of both parties to meet the challenges we can only solve together. Reducing our deficit. Reforming our tax code. Fixing our immigration system. Freeing ourselves from foreign oil. We’ve got more work to do.”

Bill Clinton’s Example

How does President Obama go about moving past the politics as usual? As President Obama presides over the divided Congress that Americans chose on Tuesday, I would suggest that he take a page from the most popular Democratic president in recent history, Bill Clinton. Bill Clinton was soundly beaten in the 1994 mid-term elections, and both houses of Congress switched to Republican control. Republicans gained 54 seats in the House, and 9 seats in the Senate in 1994, gaining control in both houses. In 1996, even as Americans re-elected Bill Clinton by an overwhelming majority in the electoral college (379-159), they also elected 3 more Republican senators, and gave the Republicans another majority in the House. However, in all cases, Clinton found a way to work with both houses of Congress in those subsequent 6 years, and much was accomplished, including:

  • Taxpayer Bill of Rights (1996)
  • Small Business Job Protection Act (1996)
  • Welfare Reform Act (1996)
  • Defense of Marriage Act (1996)
  • Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act HIPPA (1996)
  • Balanced Budget Act of (1997)
  • Taxpayer Relief Act (1997)
  • Internal Revenue Service Restructuring and Reform Act (1998)
  • American Inventors Protection Act (1999)
  • Children’s Health Act (2000)

In addition to these major pieces of legislation, Congress and Bill Clinton worked together to balance the budget for the first time since 1969. How did Bill Clinton do this? And what can President Obama learn from his predecessor’s success?


The main reason for Clinton’s legislative and executive success was, in large part, due to his policy of triangulation. Basically, triangulation was Clinton’s way of staying above and out of the political fray. He borrowed policies from both sides when designing major legislation. His famous “the era of big government is over” statement is a classic example of triangulation; he took a foundational Republican value–small government–and embraced it as his own. He also embraced deregulation, balanced budgets and welfare reform, enabling a tremendous amount of bipartisan legislation for which he could take a lion’s share of credit.

Will President Obama pursue a policy of triangulation when it comes to the Republican House? Clinton’s triangulation was borne out of necessity; American voters had soundly rejected many of the over-reaches of his first two years. President Obama governed from the far left for his first term, with relatively little success after the Republicans regained control of the House. Here are the pieces of major legislation that were passed in 2011 and 2012:

  • Leahy-Smith America Invents Act
  • Korea Free Trade Agreement
  • Columbia Free Trade Agreement
  • Panama Free Trade Agreement
  • Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act
  • National Defense Authorization Act
  • Federal Restricted Buildings and Grounds Improvement Act
  • Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge Act
  • Continuing Appropriations Resolution (CR)

Seriously. When a list of the largest legislation that you pass in two years includes a bill to refurbish federal buildings, you know that you haven’t accomplished that much.

President Obama recognized, in his victory speech, that there are many things that will require Republicans and Democrats to come together. There are many significant problems that we need to pass, and we can’t wait four more years until a new president comes in to lead. I suggest that, instead of taking the “I won, you lost” attitude of his first term, a Clintonesque conciliatory stance toward compromise might serve the president much better.

I can’t wait to see if he’s willing.

Discussion Question: Do you think that President Obama will be willing to compromise with Republicans in his second term?  Or is it all just talk, like his first term?

  • Broc Middleton

    You question is framed around the idea that it was President Obama who was unwilling to compromise in his first term.  This is simply not true.  It was Congressional Republicans who were obstructionist.  They have signaled compromise in the early days since the election.  It is THAT change which makes compromise possible.  

    • Robert Ewoldt

      You and I have very different perspectives on this, and I respect your view. You want to believe in your guy, and you want him to win. However, if you read Bob Woodward’s recent book, he gives a portrayal of Obama as unable to compromise, and an ineffective leader. And Bob Woodward has been a Democrat his entire life, and continues to be.

      Regardless of perspective, I guess we’ll see how he does. I’m interested to see whether he will let the country go off the fiscal cliff in order to keep his tiny tax increases on the rich. He’s already said that he will veto any bill that doesn’t include those tax increases. And this is with the CBO saying that those taxes will decrease GDP growth by 0.25%, which is a 17% of our economic growth.