WASHINGTON – Thousands of pages of documents from President Bill Clinton’s White House affirm a longtime adage: The more things change, the more they stay the same.
As Clinton prepared for an August 1994 news conference in which he hoped to build public support for his struggling – and ultimately unsuccessful – health care overhaul, he told his advisers: “A lot of them want to know they can keep their own plan if they like it.” Later that fall, Clinton’s Democrats were routed in midterm elections and lost control of Congress.
Nearly two decades later, President Barack Obama sought to reassure Americans about his own plan, which won approval in Congress in 2010, by telling them, “If you like your plan you can keep it.” A spate of private policy cancellations forced Obama to recant his pledge that all Americans who liked their plans could simply keep them.
More than 8 million people have signed up for health insurance under the “Obamacare” law; how the overhaul is perceived could become a deciding point for the fate of Obama’s fellow Democrats in the 2014 midterm elections.
About 7,500 pages of records released Friday through the National Archives and the Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock, Ark., show the parallels between the Clinton era and the White House under Obama. The documents may also offer a glimpse into a future as former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who led her husband’s health care task force, considers another presidential campaign in 2016.
One undated memo written after the 1994 elections offers advice on how Mrs. Clinton could soften her image. An unnamed aide told the first lady, “It’s no surprise that some Americans can’t handle smart, tough, independent women,” and encouraged Clinton to pick issues and events accentuating her personal side, not wonky interests, and recommended she do more listening.
As Clinton planned to attend the 1995 U.N. women’s conference in Beijing, the aide wrote, “It is crucial that we dispel notions (sure to be perpetuated by the Religious Right) that you are part of some feminist cabal meeting in China to plot a takeover of the world.” The conference was where Clinton famously declared that “women’s rights are human rights.”
The documents show the challenges the president faced in winning support for his health care bill. In 1993, Clinton’s advisers estimated that passing the health care bill would require a delicate balance of Democratic and Republican support, needing at least eight moderate Republicans in the Senate and 15 to 20 in the House to win approval.
A strategy memo argued the plan would require support from enough conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans without alienating too many liberal Democrats. But the bill never cleared a House committee.
“The complexity of our bill undermines our chances for success but without complexity, success is impossible,” the unsigned memo said.
It identified several lawmakers as “swing votes,” including Republican Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, who became the GOP presidential nominee against Clinton in 1996, and several House members still serving, including Reps. Fred Upton, R-Mich., Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., and Frank Pallone, D-N.J.
After Republicans swept to victory in the 1994 elections, in part because of the failed health care overhaul, the mood at the White House was sour. “We got slaughtered,” wrote communications aide David Dreyer in November 1994. “Event of historic proportions. Worse bloodbath since 1922 in the Harding administration, but even he didn’t lose control of both chambers.”
Obama also had a blunt reaction after Republicans won control of the House in the 2010 elections, in part because of fallout from passage of the new health care law. He described the defeat as “a shellacking.”
More recently, Obama has tried to win support in Congress for his plan to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, pointing to it as a way to pull families out of poverty.
The Clinton administration also had internal debates over the minimum wage, which the president signed into law in 1996, boosting the rate from $4.25 an hour to $5.15 an hour by September 1997.
In a 1998 memo from aide Phil Caplan, it became clear there was internal disagreement with a plan from Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., to raise the minimum wage even further, to $7.25 an hour. That proposal had “no support among your advisers,” Caplan told Clinton in his memo.
Instead, the economic team argued for an increase to $6.15 an hour by 2002. Others, including advisers Rahm Emanuel – now Chicago’s mayor – and Sylvia Mathews Burwell – recently nominated Health and Human Services secretary – urged that the rate be increased to $5.55 in 1999 and the issue revisited in 2000.
Clinton deputy chief of staff John Podesta, now a counselor to Obama, “is opposed and feels this won’t attract Democratic support,” Caplan told Clinton.
Another record shows how Clinton’s team considered ways of addressing the lingering Monica Lewinsky scandal, which some Republicans have cited as Mrs. Clinton considers a presidential campaign. In December 1998, Clinton adviser Benjamin Barber wrote to speechwriter Michael Waldman about the upcoming State of the Union address.
“Will the State of the Union try to grapple with the sordid history of the impeachment and what it has done to American politics and the American political process? Or will it be future-oriented and programmatic, as if nothing had happened?” Barber asked Waldman.
“I’m torn,” concluded Barber, who was not part of the administration but often advised the White House.
“If he opts to try again to wrestle with the issue directly, then I do have a suggestion: which is to speak forcefully to the real issue,” Barber said in his memo to Waldman. That issue: “His credibility and trustworthiness.” But Clinton did not take up the subject in the speech. He made passing reference to the “clash of controversy” obscuring American’s “new dawn.”
An email from Lewinsky was listed in a batch of documents regarding Gen. Wesley Clark but redacted for privacy reasons. The email from Lewinsky to White House official Ashley Raines, dated Oct. 22, 1997, was in regard to a medical report. The report prepared by Kenneth Starr, the independent prosecutor in the Clinton case, lists Raines as a Lewinsky friend.
Other records depict internal White House tensions between Clinton and Vice President Al Gore in the years before Gore ran for the presidency himself.
In a 1997 memo, Ron Klain, Gore’s chief of staff, urged a White House presidential speechwriter to include a passage about a victim of the Oklahoma City bombing who was kicked out of his office during the 1996 government shutdown. Gore had promoted the reference.
“I am trying to knock down the idea that the Clinton White House’s support for Gore is based on legacy notions and build up the idea that it is based on respect, relationships and in-the-foxhole camaraderie,” Klain wrote. He added: “This anecdote rebuts the charge that Gore lacks a Clinton-type feel for political rhetoric.”
Adding that Gore had been tireless in promoting environment, science and technology issues, Klain added: “Gore was Mr. Faithful in pushing these concerns.”