A young Democratic president comes into office with big ambitions, gets knocked back on his heels by Republicans in the mid-term elections, then makes some deft moves to recapture the center and waltzes to re-election two years later.
It sounds easy enough. And after Tuesday night’s humiliation, it must sound tempting to President Barack Obama and his battered political team. Some commentators have even suggested that losing control of the House might be a blessing in disguise for Obama’s prospects in 2012.
But the widespread speculation that what Obama needs to do now is simply “pull a Clinton”—replicating Bill Clinton’s comeback after being trounced by Newt Gingrich in 1994—grossly underestimates the challenge that Obama faces, even if he chooses to draw on a Clinton example he once disdained.
Clinton’s revival was hardly an easy process. It was a searing experience for him and his inner circle at both the personal and political levels. It came only after a stark—and intensely humbling—effort by Clinton to overhaul his White House team, recalibrate his ideological ambitions, and rethink his basic assumptions of how to be an effective president.
And even then the outcome was a tenuous thing. Clinton caught a series of lucky breaks from events and from his own enemies. And the comeback only won him 49 percent of the vote: The man widely regarded as one of the most talented Democratic politicians of modern history never command.
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