The Relevant President


After the 1994 midterm elections that wiped out Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress and gave us House Speaker Newt Gingrich, President Clinton was reduced to pleading pathetically to the media that he, as president, was still relevant to the political conversation.

How long after the 1994 midterm elections did this happen?

(a) November 1994, a few days after the election.

(b) January 1995, shortly after the Republicans took formal control of Congress.

(c) Not until April 1995.

Answer: (c). It was not until the evening of April 18, 1995 — more than five months after the election — that President Clinton said the following in a prime-time press conference — a conference that two of the major news networks declined to cover:

The Constitution gives me relevance. The power of our ideas gives me relevance. The record we have built up over the last 2 years and the things we’re trying to do to implement it give it relevance. The President is relevant here, especially an activist President. And the fact that I am willing to work with the Republicans. The question is, are they willing to work with me?

Rhetorically, it was seen as one of the low points of his presidency — having to appeal to the Constitution for his relevance — even though it contained the seeds of his return to public favor.

What’s the point? The point is, give Obama time. Clinton floundered for months after the Republicans took over. He let them overplay their hand. It wasn’t really until a year after the midterms — the government shutdown of late 1995 — that Clinton really got his mojo back.

(Of course, the government shutdown also enabled him to meet a young intern named Monica Lewinsky, so it wasn’t a total plus.)

Incidentally, guess what happened the day after that infamous press conference? The Oklahoma City bombing. Tragic as that event was, it allowed Clinton to play a role the public likes to see in its presidents: chief comforter and expounder of the nation’s grief.

Now, history never repeats itself exactly. Despite what Mitch McConnell seems to think, he is still going to be the Minority Leader of the U.S. Senate, which will deprive Obama of a foil that Clinton had in Majority Leader Bob Dole. It’s not clear whether the economy will come back in the next two years, it’s not clear whether Obama has the political acumen of Bill Clinton, and it’s not clear whether John Boehner will overplay his hand like Newt Gingrich did. We’ll see.

This week’s election results give me hope, in a way, because they point the way to Obama’s re-election. He’s not automatically going to get re-elected; several different things will have to go right.

But there’s certainly a very good chance of it.

6 thoughts on “The Relevant President

  1. You apparently see an Obama re-election as a good thing. Personally, I just can no longer see it that way. I recognize it is likely better than a Republican alternative, but on so many issues I care about — war and invasion, civil liberties, torture, executive privilege, corporate influence — sadly I see almost no meaningful differences between this administration and the last, and in some ways worse because Obama has made some of the worst overreaches by the Bush administration the new center.

  2. Oddly enough, only last week I was explaining to the munchkins in History 1401 the story of the Democratic Republicans’ 1795/6 efforts to block implementation of the Jay Treaty by refusing to vote to funds to carry the treaty into execution. Not unlike today’s Republicans, the DRs controlled the House, the other party (Federalists) the Presidency and the Senate. I doubt, though, that the current Republicans will appeal to this precedent (history usually isn’t their strong suit). And in the end, that crisis was resolved when party discipline failed and enough Republicans either went home or voted with the Feds to allow the appropriations to carry. But the general idea is plus ca change . . .

  3. If Obama uses the presidency as a bully pulpit to pound at the Goppers about supporting jobs programs, Obama will surely win. If he doesn’t do that, it depends on the quality of the Gopper candidate.

  4. Grayson. Really. As a Republican, I would love to see Grayson on the ticket. Those “Taliban Dan” ads would be awesome to see in constant rotation. Out of all the possible choices, Mr “God, Your Mama and the Democratic Party” was the honoree of And he wanted to imprison the guy who created it, simply for creating it.

    Please, please, find a way to get this man on the Democratic ticket.

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