On balance, Clinton was a good and strong president. But — and here is the second reality — it was Obama, in an even more intransigent and tribal era, who got a major health-reform package through a bitterly divided Congress. As Michael Grunwald details in “The New, New Deal,” Obama also managed to enact a major set of substantive policies — including financing the introduction of information technology into the health-care system, expanding broadband and revamping the electrical grid — that had eluded his predecessors. The accomplishments of the 111th Congress rivaled those of the Great Society Congress of Lyndon Johnson’s era. And they were achieved without the midnight phone calls or warm interactions with allies and adversaries that characterized Clinton. To a large extent, they were achieved because Obama gave his leaders in Congress a lot of slack to find majorities (or supermajorities) and intervened only when a push was needed.
If Obama had been more like Clinton, he might have ameliorated some of the tough rhetoric used against him by many business leaders and nabobs of the financial industry whose businesses, and fortunes, he saved. He might have put more onus on Republican leaders who undercut him at every turn, even before he was inaugurated, to explain their intransigence. Such an approach certainly would have cheered a lot of people who loved those communications with Clinton but who have had none of it with Obama (me among them). But it would not necessarily have made Obama’s presidency less contentious or his accomplishments more robust.
Norman J. Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and is most recently the co-author of “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism.”