The result, for Clinton and Obama, was that they
became two-year presidents.
Clinton lost his chance to reform health care, was pronounced by Time magazine the Incredible Shrinking President, and
ended up making the groveling declaration that “the era of big government is over.” Because he was a brilliant
politician, Clinton for the next six years played a very weak hand to maximum
advantage, establishing some policies that would age well (deficit reduction,
poverty-reducing expansion of the earned income tax credit) and others that
would age less well (welfare reform, crime bill, capital-gains rate reduction, statutory
prohibition against gay marriage, failure to regulate the over-the-counter
derivatives market). If Clinton’s presidency seems less consequential today
than it appeared at the time, that’s mainly because he failed to capitalize
sufficiently on 1993 and 1994, the years when he was actually president.
Perhaps heeding Clinton’s example, Obama made
much better use of his two-year presidency, pushing through the Affordable Care
Act and the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill. The first was a breakthrough
achievement toward nationalizing health care; the second, though disappointing,
was nonetheless the first Wall Street reform of any consequence since the Great
Depression. Obama didn’t get much done after the House went Republican in 2011,
because he couldn’t. Obama’s example stands as the model two-year presidency.
Republicans don’t really have two-year presidencies.
In George W. Bush’s case, control of the Senate bounced back and forth like a
ping-pong ball, but he remained president eight very long years. Bush didn’t
need much input from Congress to conduct an ill-considered war in Iraq and a
never-ending one in Afghanistan, both powered by the 9/11 attacks. Also, Bush
had little trouble getting all the bipartisan help he needed from Congress to
drive the economy into a ditch at the end of his second term.