Obama’s Opportunity

Like Ezra Klein, I’m relatively optimistic about Obama’s chances of avoiding the Jimmy Carter/first term Bill Clinton syndrome. Obama has a lot of advantages that Clinton and Carter didn’t.

Obama, to be sure, will have a team that’s much more experienced with Washington politics and the Senate than Clinton did. Clinton’s first chief of staff was Mack McLarty, an Arkansas buddy and businessman. Obama’s current chief of staff is Pete Rouse, former chief of staff to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle. Same is true down the line. Clinton had very little Washington experience in his team. Obama’s circle of advisers and aides are, by and large, old Beltway hands. That, alone, is a huge difference.

Additionally, as Kevin Drum argues, both Clinton and Carter emerged in moments when the Democratic “brand” was in sharp decline. The angry white males of America didn’t like the patrician George W. Bush, but they weren’t liberal as such. There was a great and growing backlash against government, against welfare, against “elite” liberalism that manifested in 1994, and that Clinton sought to managed and evade throughout the remainder of his presidency (“the era of big government is over…”). Similarly, Carter came to power atop disgust with Nixon, but amidst an increasing skepticism of the fractious liberal coalition — a coalition whose congressional leaders blocked many of Carter’s initiatives and that later helped Ted Kennedy mount a primary challenge against him.

I’d add two others to the list of Obama’s advantages.

First, Obama himself has significant Washington experience. He has been a Senator for 4 years now and has had an opportunity to build relationships with the Congressional leaders he will have to work with on his legislative agenda. He has secured the endorsements of Robert Byrd of the Appropriations Committee, Ted Kennedy of the Health and Education Committee, Pat Leahy of the Judiciary, Kent Conrad of Budget, Jeff Bingaman of Energy and Chris Dodd of Banking. Those Senators all think highly enough of Obama to have endorsed him in a contested primary. That will help Obama significantly. He may be relatively new in Washington, but he has been able to build relationships.

The other advantage he has is that the Democratic coalition is much more ideologically cohesive now than in 1992 or 1976. Southern conservatives have largely left the party and recently elected Democrats from the South are largely united behind the Democrats legislative agenda. They may run as more socially conservative than the national party, but they are mostly behind the domestic agenda that Obama is pushing.

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