Politicians, like generals, suffer from a tendency to fight the last war. Having studied meticulously the mistakes of their predecessors, they take care to avoid repeating them—and make the opposite ones. They fortify Maginot lines. They overcompensate for past errors. They swing too far in the other direction.
It is difficult to think of a contemporary president who has not fallen prey to this temptation. Jimmy Carter reacted against Richard Nixon’s ruthlessness and Lyndon B. Johnson’s horse-trading by becoming both too nice and too disdainful of congressional politics. Carter’s micromanagement encouraged Ronald Reagan’s propensity for detachment. Bill Clinton came to Washington intent on reversing George H.W. Bush’s excessive focus on foreign policy—and proceeded to neglect foreign policy for his first few years. George W. Bush compensated for his father’s lack of vision and Clinton’s indiscipline with his own excesses of grandiosity and punctuality. First ladies do it: Hillary Clinton tried to be the anti-Barbara Bush, while Laura Bush tried to be the anti-Hillary. Even vice presidents do it: Blathering, peripheral Joe Biden is the excessive response to the silent, all-powerful Dick Cheney.
Barack Obama, too, seems to be caught in this dialectical rut. His early difficulties with health care reform, which will probably be the defining domestic initiative of his presidency, are the consequence of over-learning Clinton’s lessons. Of course, Clinton’s mistakes were fateful and ought not to be repeated. Bill and Hillary were far too controlling of the details of policy and not skillful enough at forging political consensus. They drafted an indigestible, 1,342-page bill in secret and then dumped it on Congress’ doorstep. They tried to pass a massive social and economic transformation on a too narrow partisan basis. Rather than compromise, Clinton waved his veto pen. He challenged too many interest groups too directly and lost the propaganda war.
You can diagram Team Obama’s game plan by reversing the Clinton playbook. Obama started by courting the major interest groups and so far has seen none of the major lobbies—insurers, drug companies, hospitals, or doctors—come out against what he’s trying to do. He has repeatedly stated his bipartisan intentions, flexibility, and openness to compromise. Instead of proposing a plan or even endorsing any specific policies, he has laid out eight broad principles and left the rest to Congress. His allies are outspending his opponents in advertising by a ratio of 2-to-1.
Obama’s major difficulties predictably derive from reacting too strongly against the Clinton model. Where Clinton went wrong by being too controlling, Obama has given up to much control. Leaving the specifics to Congress has led to a classic sausage-making festival. Neutralizing powerful interest groups has meant dropping sound policy ideas and neglecting essential cost controls. Putting the Democratic legislative barons in the driver’s seat has undercut bipartisanship. Not having a specific plan has left Obama in the awkward position of lobbying for something that doesn’t exist.
You can see a similar pendulum effect in foreign policy, where the object lesson is not Bill Clinton but George W. Bush. Obama, who did not have much global expertise before coming to office, molded his approach around his predecessor’s errors. Bush’s naive idealism and unilateralism encouraged Obama’s realism and multilateralism. Bush’s boycott of North Korea, Cuba, and Iran fed Obama’s eagerness to engage pragmatically with those tyrannies. Bush’s neglect of the Mideast peace process fed Obama’s urge to plunge into it. The new president has reversed the old one’s prioritization of Iraq over Afghanistan and, in what has become the political cliché of 2009, tried “hitting the reset button” on relations with Russia.
In so doing, Obama now faces an inverted set of hazards: getting overcommitted in Afghanistan, putting too much faith in the United Nations, accommodating dictators instead of standing up to them. Most alarmingly, given all that his predecessor did to discredit them, Obama has failed to stand up for the broader ideas of democracy promotion and humanitarian intervention. Surely if not for Bush, Obama’s instinct after the Iranian election would have been to identify with those risking their lives to free their country, not to get back to his attempt at dialogue with Ahmadinejad.
Is it possible to avoid this sort of over-steering? More than once, Obama himself has warned against the danger of fighting the last war. Even so, it’s difficult instinct for a president to resist. Perhaps the best that can be hoped for is a rapid shift from antithesis to Hegelian synthesis. And here, the agile Obama looks poised to do better than most. When he miscalculates, as he did in speaking too directly about the arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr. at his July 22 press conference, he is quick to own his error. Instead of digging in, he starts digging his way out. On Iran, Obama belatedly spoke up for the “universal principle that people should have a voice in their own lives and their own destiny.” On health care, he appears to be in the midst of re-evaluating his approach.
The other factor that helps Obama is that his opponents are fighting the last war, too. Because obstructing “Hillarycare” worked for them politically in 1994, many Republicans seem to think that spiking “Obamacare” will play the same way the second time around. Even if they can, it won’t.
A version of this article also appears in this week’s issue of Newsweek.