The temptation to compare Presidents to their predecessors is one that seems to prove impossible for pundits to resist. Immediately after Barack Obama's election, many fawning media types sought to cast him as a historical figure by linking him to Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt. of late, many on the right have tried to portray Obama as the second coming of Jimmy Carter (no Atomizer, that is not a good thing).
While it is still way too early in the game to say which presidency Obama's will most come to resemble, I think you can make a case for the possibility that it parallels that of Bill Clinton. Not that President Obama would approve of being grouped together with Clinton. It's quite clear that he wants an F.D.R. like legacy and is willing to use the L.B.J. like strategies to achieve it. But whether President Obama ends up being labeled as another F.D.R., Carter, or Clinton may have less to do what he wishes than with where political and economic realities push him.
How could Obama's presidency come to resemble Clinton's? Three ways.
Obama has decided that he needs to take advantage of the opportunity afforded by the crisis environment and Democratic control of Congress to push his pet programs through as quickly as possible. He realizes that there probably won't be a better time to get what he wants done than the present and he's going to try to make hay while he can. The signature achievement that he most wants to be remembered for is health care reform. But in his haste to get a bill (any bill) passed, he's set himself up for a fall if his health care plans end up getting tripped up.
As Ramesh Ponnuru notes in the July 20th edition of National Review (sub req) losing the health care battle would likely force Obama to take in his sails and tack back to the center:
President Obama has not staked his presidency on health care as overtly as Clinton did in 1993. But no piece of legislation is more important to his claim to have inaugurated a new political era in which Clintonian compromise with conservatism is no longer necessary. If the Democrats cannot enact a liberal bill, Obama will have proven unable to deliver the change liberals have been waiting for. His presidency will, on its own terms, have failed. That does not mean that Obama cannot go on to have a successful presidency--but if he does it will be different, and less liberal, than the one he hopes to have.
It certainly would not be his "Waterloo" as some of Obama's foes have ill-advisedly claimed, but it would change the course of his presidency.
The economy may also have a lot to say about the path the Obama presidency takes. While it's impossible to predict exactly what the economy is going to like a year from now, it sure doesn't look like we're going to be in the midst of a robust recovery. We may be growing again, but that growth is likely to be painfully slow and anemic. And that growth is not going to be driving a significant resurgence in job creation.
Considering how big a factor the economy is in the outcome of elections, that does not bode well for the Democrats in 2010. It's unlikely that the Republicans could take back both the House and the Senate and they make not control either after 2010. But the Democratic majorities in both bodies are likely to reduced, perhaps greatly. This will force President Obama to actually practice some of the bipartisan consensus seeking that he preached during the campaign and move his policies back toward the center. Maybe not as much as Clinton was forced to after 1994, but far more than he would choose to on his own.
Unlike those of a more pessimistic bent, I believe that the U.S. economy will recover sometime. Despite the drags and unnecessary burdens that Obama and the Democrats will place on it, the economy is just to resilient not to bounce back. And while nothing is certain, it seems reasonable to imagine that the bounce will occur before 2012. Which could greatly enhance Obama's chance of reelection.
If the economy starts humming along nicely again sometime in 2011, it will probably be too soon for Congressional Republicans to take any credit for it. So as has usually been the case in the past, the President will reap the rewards whether he deserves to or not. Barring any major foreign blow ups or significant scandals, a good economy would likely be enough for voters to give President Obama a second term. Much as they did Bill Clinton in 1996.
A health care defeat that alters his course. A mid-term election result that forces him to move right. And a growing economy that helps get him reelected. You can see why Barack Obama could end following in Bill Clinton's footsteps. He might not be real happy about such a result, but it almost certainly would be a better one for the country.