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Sun Apr 22, 2012, 08:19 AM

From Hope to Hardball

From Hope to Hardball
How Barack Obama became Bill Clinton.

Noam Scheiber
April 20, 2012 | 12:00 am


The outsized war-room capabilities are hardly the only Clintonite technique the Obama apparatus has adopted. President Obama has rewarded his mega-donors with frequent trips to the White House. And, just as Clinton did in 1995 and 1996, Team Obama has lashed a moderate GOP front-runner to right-wingers in Congress and portrayed him as a mortal threat to the welfare state.

Far from a badge of dishonor, though, the new ruthlessness is actually a sign of maturity. “It’s not like Bill Clinton created a war room because he had the personality for a war room,” says the Obama administration veteran. “He did it because that’s what you have to do today to respond to the crazy shit that comes your way.” What Obama and his team have accepted is that, while there’s a lot to be said for changing politics and elevating the discourse, your most important job as president is to defend your priorities. And the way to do that is to win.


The major difference between the two after the midterms was their posture toward Republicans. Clinton went for the jugular early. By August of 1995, he had launched a major ad campaign attacking the Republican Congress for its designs on Medicare and vowing to defend the program from $270 billion in cuts. Almost daily beginning in late 1995, Clinton and his surrogates repeated their mantra of protecting “Medicare, Medicaid, education, and the environment”—that is, the programs Republicans threatened to decimate. The White House even had a nickname for the refrain: “M2E2.” “It wasn’t elegant—I wouldn’t etch it in marble. But people fucking knew what was at stake,” recalls Paul Begala, a former Clinton strategist. When Bob Dole emerged as the Republican presidential nominee the following spring, he had little hope of separating himself from his party’s government-slashing ethos.

Obama, on the other hand, spent more of his third year striking conciliatory notes as he negotiated with the GOP over the deficit. With the exception of a tough, high-profile speech that April, his White House consciously avoided flaying Republicans over their proposed cuts to Medicaid and Medicare. He didn’t dwell on their anti-government nihilism until a speech in December, and even then he did so in broad strokes.

The relative civility came to a clear end this month, however, when Obama turned up at an Associated Press luncheon and proceeded to lacerate the GOP over the handiwork of Representative Paul Ryan, whose budget proposal the House had recently passed. Obama talked, Clinton-style, about how the Ryan budget would squeeze seniors who depend on Medicare and bump as many as 19 million poor and disabled Americans off Medicaid. He argued that Ryan’s plan would cut 200,000 children from Head Start, roll back financial aid to ten million college students, and make it harder to “protect the air we breathe, the water we drink, or the food that we eat.” It was “M2E2” all over again. For good measure, Obama held Mitt Romney responsible for every letter of the Ryan plan, gleefully noting that the presumptive nominee had pronounced it to be “marvelous.”



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