Second Verse, Same as the First?

Former President Bill Clinton bows as President Barack Obama walks on stage after Clinton's address to the Democratic Nationa
Former President Bill Clinton bows as President Barack Obama walks on stage after Clinton's address to the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., on Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2012. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

President Obama chose to begin his State of the Union address last week with a quotation from President Kennedy. It was appropriate and well-chosen. However, the agenda that he presented to the nation brought to mind another of Kennedy's quotes, this one from his 1960 campaign. A standard line in JFK's stump speech was that the Republican Party reminded him of its mascot: a "circus elephant, with his head full of ivory, a long memory and no vision." What went unsaid but left to his audience to infer was that the pachyderms invariably had to be trailed by a man with a shovel to clean up the mess.

It was a similar - and similarly unpleasant task - that occupied much of President Obama and President Clinton's first terms in the aftermath of the Great Recession and the double-dip recession of the early 1990s, respectively. In both men's presidencies, a stabilizing economy at the start of their second terms made it possible for them to speak to propose to the nation a longer term and broader set of ideas. Having been privileged to be part of President Clinton's post-reelection White House, what was remarkable to me in listening to this year's State of the Union address was how much of President Obama's new agenda had a familiar ring.

Whether it was raising the minimum wage, strengthening infrastructure, promoting research and innovation, providing high-quality preschool to every child in America, making college more affordable, addressing climate change, stemming gun violence, or even passing specific legislation such as the Violence Against Women Act and the Paycheck Fairness Act much of the 2013 State of the Union address picked up - even with the same words - where the 2000 State of the Union speech left off.

Yet while aspects of the agenda may be similar, the moment is very different. The intervening years between Clinton and Obama were not simply a pause but a detour - a devastating attack on the country, two painful wars, runaway deficits, economic policies that tilted away from middle class opportunity, and ever more corrosive politics.

The broadly shared growth and yawning budget surpluses of the end of the Clinton presidency have not yet reappeared, and it is doubtful we will see them soon. That means that some of the more ambitious elements of the Clinton agenda of 2000 - such as new universal retirement savings accounts to supplement Social Security - are now out of reach. "Of all sad words of tongue or pen," wrote John Greenleaf Whittier, "the saddest are these: 'It might have been!'"

The question, however, is what yet might be. That is because more has changed in the intervening years than our economic and budgetary situation. The partisan polarization already well in evidence in Congress in the late 1990s has been overtaken by an ideological polarization. The ranks of moderate Republicans, Blue Dogs, and New Democrats have dramatically thinned. Where Clinton could laugh about "the seesaw" he was witnessing in his 2000 speech with Democrats giving ovations at some points and Republicans providing them at others, Speaker Boehner and his Republicans could scarcely be roused to their feet to applaud what once would have been considered common sense.

Though the times are different, a president's agenda can still speak to that dynamic. So much of what was said in 2000 and in 2013 overlapped, but just as important as the specific programs was Obama's eloquent plea to address Medicare spending in a balanced way by appropriating the targets of the Bowles-Simpson commission. In doing so, he echoed the passion Clinton demonstrated for approaches such as reinventing government and reforming welfare - ideas that broke the mold and broke out of the traditional contours of the two party debate.

Perhaps it is too late to recreate "the seesaw" of the late 1990s, but these types of ideas are crucial to building a new long-term governing majority among the independents distrustful of the stalest parts of both parties' programs.

"The era of big government is over, but we can't go back to a time when our citizens were just left to fend for themselves," said Clinton in his 1996 State of the Union address. "It's not a bigger government we need, but a smarter government that sets priorities and invests in broad-based growth," argued Obama seventeen years later. What passed between their presidencies took America in a wrong direction in so many ways. In his 2013 State of the Union address, Obama held out the promise of building the bridge to a better 21st century.