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Obama Striving to Avoid Curse of ’93

A young, charismatic Democratic president enters office with high hopes among those in his party, who are in control of Congress and eager to get his agenda passed. The top item on the list is health care, and there is great expectation that one of the holy grails of Democratic politics is finally within reach. But Republicans mount fierce opposition, and the president’s plummeting popularity dims the prospects for health care reform.

Old Washington hands could be forgiven for thinking they were stuck in a rerun from the Clinton administration. But while the destination is beginning to look eerily similar, the road map is in fact quite different.

Those who were there in the early 1990s describe a new Democratic administration that was completely different in tone and habit from the current one. The contrast flows from the pinnacle of power, boiling down to the difference between Obama’s cool and Clinton’s temperamental heat.

But what’s unclear is how much it will matter in the end, and whether Obama’s health initiative will be defeated like Clinton’s and his party will suffer the kind of rout Democrats experienced in 1994.

Former Clinton staffers and Congressional aides describe a seat-of-the-pants operation that bears no comparison with the far more efficient Obama White House. Former aides note that after 12 years of Republican rule, there was little institutional memory in 1993 of the White House for Democrats.

“No one had ever worked in the White House before — no one knew how the building worked,— said one former senior Clinton aide and top Congressional staffer. “They were making it up as they went along. It was a high-wire act all the time.—

Others have been less charitable.

“They are a bunch of f—ups,— one friend of Clinton’s, who spoke anonymously, said back in 1993.

According to presidential scholar Stephen Hess, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, Clinton compounded the problem by installing his old friend Mack McLarty as chief of staff. McLarty found himself unable to successfully navigate Washington and manage the White House.

“He made his friend from kindergarten chief of staff,— Hess said. “It was all wrong, and it didn’t get straightened out until he brought in [former California Democratic Rep.] Leon Panetta, who had the experience from the Hill.—

Clinton’s personal oscillations radiated out to the staff, which lurched from crisis to crisis. Sources suggested that many of the White House staffers were highly competent, but that their lack of experience in the White House and uneven direction from the top caused the ship of state’s uneven keel.

Clinton caused an uproar at the start of his administration with his effort to allow openly gay soldiers to serve in the military. The difficulties continued all year and included a cliffhanger vote on Clinton’s economic plan in which the White House barely convinced former Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.) to provide the one-vote margin of victory in the Senate.

Democratic sources noted that one of the Clinton operation’s biggest mistakes was its mishandling of certain key Senators, particularly Kerrey and former Finance Chairman Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.). “They mishandled relations with Moynihan, and it hurt them on health care and with their economic plan,— said a source who was a Democratic Senate staffer at the time.

There were some major achievements in 1993, including a significant bipartisan victory of the type that has eluded Obama. Clinton supported ratification in the Senate of the North American Free Trade Agreement, much to the consternation of some Democrats. Clinton early in the year signed the Family and Medical Leave Act and in November signed the Brady gun bill imposing a five-day waiting period on handgun purchases.

Obama’s team is loaded with experienced Hill hands and former Clinton operatives, starting with Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, a buzz saw of energy and direction who is the perfect counterpoint to McLarty. Other Clintonites in top positions include National Economic Council Director Larry Summers, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and Office of Management and Budget Director Peter Orszag.

Much of Obama’s legislative affairs staff is plucked directly from Congress, led by Phil Schiliro, the longtime aide to Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) who is respected and liked on both sides of the aisle.

And of course Vice President Joseph Biden also made the move from Capitol Hill.

And yet some of Obama’s experiences with Congress mirror those of Clinton’s. Like Clinton with the Family Leave Act, Obama scored an early social policy victory when he signed an expansion of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program.

But the partisanship he vowed to vanquish has, by his own admission, proved stubbornly resilient, as it did under Clinton.

There was even an echo of Clinton’s problems with Moynihan this summer when the current Finance chairman, Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), grumbled about being undercut by the president in his efforts to craft a compromise health care bill in his committee.

And of course, the health bill is in trouble, even though Obama and his aides tried to avoid every mistake Clinton made on his measure. Most notably, Obama has let Congress do much of the work while Clinton submitted a detailed proposal that drew immediate fire.

Obama has a different type of team than Clinton’s, and the results of his first two years may still be better than Clinton’s. The problem for the current president is that Washington doesn’t change much, and the headwinds against Obama are just as strong as they were for Clinton in 1993.

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