My Findings on Clinton and Obama’s Presidential Leadership

My paper focuses on the different leadership styles and tactics of Clinton and Obama with the 1995/1996 government shutdowns and the 2011 debt-ceiling crisis, respectively. I thought this would be an interesting topic because the latter conflict is one we were all caught up with during the summer of 2011. And, at least in the sources I read during that conflict, Clinton’s battle with the 104th Congress was often brought up as a point of comparison. I wanted to research how accurate this comparison was.


I realized very shortly into my research for this paper that such a comparison is insufficient, in several ways. At first, I set out to determine how Clinton and Obama used different tactics and strategies to achieve the same end-that is, “beating” a highly oppositional Congress in their respective public battles over budgetary issues. However, I quickly discovered that Clinton and Obama didn’t just use different strategies, but they had vastly different goals in the two conflicts. Clinton’s driving motivation, I found, was reasserting his relevance, reframing the results of the 1994 election, and adapting many of the Republicans’ policy aims as his own. Averting government shutdowns were secondary to his more overtly political goals. Obama, on the other hand, was more motivated by the possibility of a “grand compromise” with Speaker Boehner. From there, I had to determine how effective the strategies and tools Clinton and Obama used were at reaching these considerably different goals.


I also want to note that George Edwards’ book At the Margins: Presidential Leadership of Congress was a very compelling read, not just as part of my paper’s analytical framework, but in a larger discussion of presidential leadership. Edwards’ primary point is that various tools of presidential leadership in executive-legislative relations, under the categories of leading the party, leading the public and legislative skill, can only go so far to actually influence the outcome of a conflict; presidential leadership of Congress occurs at the margins, as the environmental context in which a president seeks to achieve his goals often set limits on his influence. I’ve heard it suggested on numerous occasions that Obama would have seen more success in his first term had he been more like Johnson, or even Clinton. In the conclusion of my paper, I did say that Obama could have adapted some of Clinton’s more publicly oriented tactics to aid in his bipartisan efforts in 2011. However, Edwards’ conclusion made me more skeptical about blanket statements like “Obama would have succeeded during the debt-ceiling crisis had he acted like Clinton.”

-Katie Smith, Hofstra University

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