From there out, the writers speak to “numerous veterans of previous White Houses and other experts” about the “urgent need to reinvient his [Obama’s] presidency” by “discarding the Congress-focused strategy of the first two years and coming up with new and more creative ways to exercise power.” The five pithy bullet point headers the president can use to achieve such a 2.0 transformation are: “Grow the White House staff—by 2 million people,” a figure representing the number of folks who work for the executive branch; “Draw new lines—with new ideas”; “Co-opt the opposition”; “Be leader of the country—not just the government”; and, get your “Wheels up,” going overseas for photo ops where you look respected and revered. Or, more briefly: “Become Bill Clinton.”
When they’re not talking to former Clinton staffer Podesta, Harris and Hohmann are drawing from the examples of 42’s eight years for advice. How do you get all two million staffmembers working for you? Well
Former president Bill Clinton, who similarly had to abandon a legislative approach after Democrats were bounced from power in 1994, was the most creative president in the modern era at using the powers of the executive branch in legitimate ways that nonetheless expressly served his own political ends as he prepared for reelection in 1996.
Clinton issued an executive order to turn 1.7 million acres in Utah into the Grand Staircase of the Escalante National Monument, a far-reaching move that thrilled environmentalists. He announced the move not in Utah, but in Arizona, a swing state. During his reelection campaign in his second White House term, Clinton set up a de facto think tank run by senior adviser Tom Freedman, who scoured the executive branch for ideas that the president could embrace and make his own.
How might you co-opt the opposition, exactly?
One way to do that, some presidential observers suggest, is by appointing a prominent Republican — ideally someone with high-level business experience — to a top position in his administration. Another common way to do that is rhetorically, which was the idea behind Clinton’s 1996 State of the Union address when he announced, “The era of Big Government is over.”
Liberals will chafe at such steps. But the idea is to co-opt the opposition — not to capitulate to it. Clinton made that statement as a tactical move to advance his larger strategy, which was to preserve Medicare and Social Security and expand government into new areas.
And how does one lead the country and not just the government?
After the 1994 elections put his own relevance in doubt, Clinton spent much of the balance of his six years talking about things like school prayer, local education and television sex and violence. All these things were — at least under conventional presidential powers — only tangentially within his purview. But nontraditional powers can have results. The Welfare to Work Foundation that Clinton started in 1996 at the recommendation of Freedman and the late Eli Segal after signing welfare reform into law encouraged private corporations to hire millions of people off welfare rolls.
Guess who thinks Obama needs to do something similar
“President Obama has a similar opportunity: to be the one who explains, who articulates what that common ground really is, securing the place where I think most Americans, especially the independents, want him to be … while preserving and protecting as much as he wants to around his core agenda,” said Don Baer, a top adviser to Clinton during that period.
Yes, Politico’s ghost of Christmas Future looks a lot like a certain red-faced, white-haired Arkansan. But we’re not surprised. By definition, political media narratives, even those we write for stories yet to come, are derived from the past, as if each political moment and the people who shape it are but reincarnations of problems and persons who have come before. The president’s in a Clintonian mess—despite the vast polling and economic data that would suggest that’s too broad—and he must take Clintonian steps to get out of it. (We doubt the president himself much likes this vision of his future; a point Politico acknowledges.)