Imagine you’re coaching a team in a huge game. It’s the championship, the culmination of your whole season. Everyone is pumped and you give an inspiring speech. Then your team charges out onto the field—and utterly blows it.
If it’s basketball, you’re down by 40 points at halftime. If it’s baseball, the other team scores nine runs in the first inning. You’re Brazil in the World Cup final; you’re the New York Jets in just about any game. At halftime, the mood is glum.
As coach, what do you say to your team?
It’s rare that we can go into a locker room at halftime like that, but in the wake of the U.S. midterm elections this week, we have a great opportunity to compare three real-life approaches to a similar problem. The last three presidents—Clinton, Bush and Obama—have all had the experience of having voters repudiate their leadership by throwing their parties out of office during midterm elections. The morning after each vote, each president had to give a press conference and address the nation. They had to figure out how to inspire and lead in a new, less favorable environment.
They did so with three very different approaches. Which do you think works best?
1. Clinton: Pivot and sprint
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For all the talk about this year’s midterm reversal, it was President Clinton in 1994 who dealt with the most dramatic loss. Republicans captured majorities in governors’ mansions, in the U.S. Senate and most importantly the House of Representatives—54 seats, which means they took control of the chamber for the first time in 40 years. If it weren’t for this reversal, most Americans probably never would have heard of Newt Gingrich, who became Speaker of the House.
The morning after, Clinton was both conciliatory and challenging—and he turned quickly to the center.
“We were held accountable yesterday. And I accept my share of the responsibility in the result of the elections,” he said, but added: “When the Republican Party assumes leadership in the House and in the Senate, they will also have a larger responsibility…I ask them to join me in the center of the public debate, where the best ideas for the next generation of American progress must come.”
This was a pretty good indication of exactly what Clinton intended to do—work with the Republicans on some things, but also set the stage to highlight their failings. For example, by the time the 1996 election came around, he had signed the GOP’s welfare reform bill, but he’d also stood up to the Republicans on the budget and ensured that the GOP, not the Democrats, took the blame for the 1995-1996 government shutdowns.
Of course, we also wound up with the Monica Lewinsky scandal, but that’s a story for another article. The point is the result: Clinton gave up on some of his big objectives, but after his party was clobbered in 1994, he was reelected easily in 1996.
2. Bush: Stay the course
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In 2006, it was the Republicans’ turn to be repudiated. At the height of discontent over the Iraq War, voters gave control of both houses of Congress to Democrats, along with a majority of governorships and state legislatures. This was the first time since Clinton’s drubbing, by the way, that Democrats had control of the House of Representatives.
In retrospect, Bush’s opening words at the press conference the next morning are pretty funny: “Say, why all the glum faces?”
From there, however, he struck two chords: kinda congratulatory, but consistent and unwavering, even in pursuit of an unpopular policy.
“It is clear the Democrat Party had a good night last night, and I congratulate them on their victories,” Bush said. (It’s worth noting that he referred to the “Democratic Party,” without an “-ic” at the end of the word, which is a common dig Republicans use on their colleagues across the aisle.) Later in that speech, he famously referred to the beating his colleagues took as “a thumpin’,” but we have to fast-forward a bit to get to the real meat of his remarks:
“I know there’s a lot of speculation on what the election means for the battle we’re waging in Iraq. I recognize that many Americans voted last night to register their displeasure with the lack of progress being made there. Yet I also believe most Americans and leaders here in Washington from both political parties understand we cannot accept defeat.”
This was basically code for the idea that as much as Democrats wanted the U.S. to get out of Iraq, it wasn’t going to happen. Instead, two months after the election, Bush announced his surge strategy, which extended the tours of soldiers in Iraq and buttressed them with 20,000 additional soldiers.
Result: In the short to medium-term, things improved significantly in Iraq, although there was no sustainable effort to get the American people behind the war. Two years later, Barack Obama was elected president. Bush made progress on his objectives, but today the U.S. involvement in Iraq looks like anything but a net victory.
3. Obama: Pretend it didn’t happen
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Enter Obama. On Tuesday, the Democrats endured a Bush-like “thumpin’,” and yet the president’s day-after speech was sort of the worst of both of his predecessors’ strategies. He lived up to his reputation for aloofness and worked hard to avoid any quotable sound bites, but in the process suggested he hadn’t even thought much about whether there was a new political environment.
“I’ll leave it to all of you and the professional pundits to pick through yesterday’s results,” he said at one point.
Obama has accomplished more than people give him credit for. Imperfect as it is, we have a national health insurance scheme of sorts, and there hasn’t been a major terror attack on U.S. soil since Obama took office. As badly as the Mideast crises have been handled, it’s hard to imagine how the president could have pursued other strategies without ignoring the electorate like Bush did in the wake of 2006.
But what’s glaring here is not just his refusal to acknowledge the election results, but the fact that he doesn’t seem to be doing so in favor of any specific political goal. In other words, Clinton tempered his policy goals in favor of optics. Bush pretty much ignored optics in favor of a goal he cared about. But can you name a big objective that Obama wants to pursue now, or a popular cause he’s likely to pursue in a way that will inspire Americans going forward?
It’s hard to say which of these three approaches is best—but it’s pretty clear which one makes the least sense.
Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images