For someone who spent much of the Democratic primary season running against the Clinton era, Barack Obama sounds an awful lot like Bill Clinton.

Obama is unfortunate in the deeper problems he has inherited, but much more fortunate in working with a more united — and more liberal — Democratic Congress than did Clinton, who took office with his party still uncertain of its direction after losing three consecutive presidential elections to Republicans. But their first State of the Union-style speeches to Congress were remarkably alike.

Obama explained in his speech Tuesday night that the newly enacted stimulus package is a temporary but necessary measure to jolt the economy and slow the hemorrhage of jobs. Clinton in 1993 explained the first stage of his economic program as an “immediate jobs package” to “put people to work right now” rebuilding highways and airports, renovating housing and training youth in summer jobs.

Obama said long-term deficit reduction is crucial to long-term economic stability. So did Clinton. Both announced they would cut spending and reform government, but also increase taxes on the wealthy. Obama would roll back the Bush tax cuts that benefit “the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans” — while sparing families earning $250,000 or less from paying “one single dime” more. Clinton likewise announced a tax hike on the affluent, saying “98.8 percent of America’s families will have no increase in their income tax rates. Only the wealthiest 1.2 percent will see their rates rise.”

Now match the president with his pledge to revamp the health care system:

“The American people expect us to deal with health care. And we must deal with it now,” said one.

“Health care reform cannot wait, it must not wait, and it will not wait another year,” said the other.

The first was Clinton; the second Obama. But the point is not to demonstrate that when it comes to Democratic presidents, the more things change the more they stay the same.

There’s a reason that Clinton’s fiscal policy and economic accomplishments — robust growth and a federal budget surplus — were reversed under George W. Bush and a Republican Congress, and why Clinton’s health care revision foundered on Capitol Hill. The fundamentals remain unchanged: There is an ideological gulf between the two parties that has grown wider in the last two decades. And Democrats in more conservative-leaning states are chronically apprehensive about following what may be in their hearts when it is at odds with the political calculus in their heads.

Who could have imagined last fall — when even the soon-to-be-gone Bush administration briefly signaled it might back a second economic stimulus package — that in the end, congressional Republicans would be nearly unanimous in opposition, and that the party would make the core of its comeback message a rant against it?

Obama says he has “no illusions” that health care reform will come easy. But it still seems doubtful that he understands the intensity of opposition that such a revision will face. Other than taxes, there is no other domestic issue that so opens the philosophical fault line between the two parties.

Democrats want universal insurance coverage. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who delivered the Republican Party response to Obama’s speech, said his party’s goal is universal “access.” We have that now — anyone who can afford health insurance can buy it; the poor can “access” health care through emergency rooms as a last resort. Few would say this system is working well.

Likewise, Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, told participants at the White House fiscal summit earlier this week that any health care overhaul must be “market-based.” Democrats believe, in essence, that the market has failed.

So the problem isn’t meanness, though there is an excessive amount of that in politics. Nor is it always that the party out of power opposes a president for the sake of it. Democrats and Republicans these days live in two different worlds. That is why only three Senate Republicans — all from states that have trended Democratic since the 1990s — voted for the stimulus legislation.

Perhaps Obama will prove to be a more adept politician than Clinton, whose two terms in office took on a mythic quality of endless struggle against his adversaries. Perhaps public disgust at the obedience to ideology that characterized the Bush years, and Americans’ readiness for change, will bolster Obama now.

No doubt the U.S. public likes presidents with big ambitions. It’s the process of realizing them that tends to trip our presidents up.

Marie Cocco’s e-mail address is mariecocco(at)

© 2009, Washington Post Writers Group

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