Piece by Piece, Obama Undoing President Bill Clinton's Actions

Posted: 06/14/12 09:46 AM ET


WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration's stunning announcement that it now considers the Defense of Marriage Act indefensible because it discriminates against gay couples was more than a sign of the times.

It was yet one more reason Barack Obama is the un-Bill Clinton.

From gay rights to Wall Street reform, Obama has taken actions his fellow Democrat wished he could have during his presidency or which, a decade after leaving office, he regrets he didn't:

Defense of Marriage Act. As Attorney General Eric Holder noted, "Much of the legal landscape has changed" since Clinton signed the law in 1996, including a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that sodomy laws are unconstitutional and the repeal of the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy. So have attitudes.

Clinton said at the time he believed marriage should be between a man and a woman but that it should be left to states to decide.

More recently, he told activists that he "didn't like" signing DOMA but wanted to head off a "very reactionary Congress" set on pushing through a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. He said he has changed his mind and would, presumably, support a renewed effort to repeal it.

"Don't ask, don't tell." Obama made good on a promise to repeal the Clinton-era policy that his predecessor never wanted. Clinton's first priority after taking office was to fulfill a campaign pledge to allow gays to serve openly in the military. But a backlash from the military and Congress forced a compromise that would allow gays to serve if they kept their sexual orientation to themselves.

The former president later said he regretted signing DADT, which led to the discharge of more than 14,000 gays and lesbians. But he has always made clear it wasn't his first choice in the face of a veto-proof majority in Congress opposed to allowing gays to serve openly.

"President Clinton was -- and continues to be -- an ardent supporter of gay equality, but he was governing in a very different era," said Lanae Erickson of Third Way, a centrist Democratic group. " 'Don't ask, don't tell' and DOMA were products of their time, but they have become relics of the past, as outmoded as grunge looks and the Macarena."

DADT and DOMA "happened on his watch but they were not what he wanted," said Richard Socarides, president of the advocacy group Equality Matters and a former Clinton White House adviser on gay rights. "Clinton's record is what it is. He did some great things on gay rights and did these things that's taken a long time to get out from under."

Wall Street regulation. Obama's expansion of government financial regulation in part undid the damage from actions taken by the Clinton White House.

Although the Clinton years were boom times very unlike the financial meltdown Obama faced when he came into office, the former president has admitted he was "wrong" about not regulating derivatives.

The strong economy of the 1990s also allowed Clinton to balance the federal budget. Obama's budget features trillions of dollars in deficits but also comes as the country is slowly recovering from the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.

"President Obama is trying to balance the budget while at the same time investing in our future: education, innovation, job creation and public safety," said former Clinton advisor Paul Begala. "I find President Obama's economic agenda wholly in sync with Clinton's -- and the GOP agenda of gutting education while subsidizing oil companies to be the opposite of what Clinton did."

Demise of the 'New Democrat'

Clinton was a centrist whose election in 1992 marked the high point for the moderate wing of the Democratic Party. Liberals made a comeback in 2008 by electing Obama. Suddenly, "New Democrats" like Clinton were old news.

It was more than a bit symbolic earlier this month when the Democratic Leadership Council, the centrist think tank behind so many of Clinton's policies, closed its doors.

Liberals may have accused Obama of turning Clintonian in his recent tax compromise with Republicans and until recently grumbled he wasn't moving fast enough on gay rights, but the two men are hardly philosophical soul mates.

Take their attitudes toward organized labor. Obama has called the current moves by Republican governors in Wisconsin and elsewhere to do away with collective bargaining rights an "assault" on unions.

That's a sharp contrast to Clinton, who attacked national labor unions for opposing fellow Arkansan Blanche Lincoln in her unsuccessful bid to keep her Senate seat last year.

After Hillary Rodham Clinton's failed attempt to reform the health care system, Republicans took over the House in 1994. President Clinton subsequently signed a sweeping welfare reform bill and declared, "The era of big government is over." He went on to become the first Democrat since Franklin Roosevelt to win a second term.

Obama managed to do what Clinton couldn't: pass a comprehensive health care law. He paid for it with his own shellacking in November that cost Democrats control of the House.

But he has shown few signs of wanting to drastically scale back government.

"Clinton was far more a pragmatic triangulator than Obama is," said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a University of Southern California political scientist.

"It's an interesting pattern, but I don't think Obama is doing these thing mainly to say, 'Take that Bill Clinton, I'm my own man,' " she said. "The decisions were made on the basis of Obama's own stance on the issues and on the need to motivate the Democratic base for the 2012 election."

This article originally appeared on AOL News on Feb 24, 2011