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U.S. President Barack Obama crosses the South Lawn after stepping off Marine One at the White House on July 9. (Jim Young/Reuters)
U.S. President Barack Obama crosses the South Lawn after stepping off Marine One at the White House on July 9. (Jim Young/Reuters)

Is Obama becoming Bill Clinton II? Add to ...

Almost since he entered the White House, Barack Obama has avoided dancing with those who brung him. The progressives and left-leaning liberals who worked hardest to elect him had a nasty feeling from Day One that 'The One' might morph into a Bill Clinton clone before long.

Mr. Obama's move on Tuesday to hire Mr. Clinton's budget director for the same job in his administration will not console the progressives. But the return of a proven deficit slayer to the West Wing could enhance Mr. Obama's standing with the centrist voters he needs to win again in 2012.

It probably won't do anything - if anything can be done - to improve the prospects for Democrats in this fall's midterm congressional elections. The President is most in trouble with the kind of voters who tend to turn out most in midterm votes. And as a major Washington Post/ABC News poll shows, they are increasingly set on turfing Democrats in November.

According to the poll out Tuesday, fully 56 per cent of voters considered "most likely" to go to the polls in November would prefer to see Republicans retake control of Congress. Among all voters, a majority would now rather see the GOP in charge of the Senate and House of Representatives, a double-digit swing from 2006 and 2008.

It is not because voters are enamoured with Republicans; they mostly want a stronger check on Mr. Obama's policies. Fairly or not, the President is saddled with his image as a big government spender. He earns his best marks from Americans for his performance as commander-in-chief; he scores worst on his handling of the economy and budget deficit.

This sounds awfully familiar for Democrats who remember the thrashing they took in 1994 - the first midterm vote of Mr. Clinton's presidency - when Republicans retook control of both houses. A chastened Mr. Clinton moved to embrace Republican ideas, especially welfare reform and deficit reduction. He won re-election easily in 1996.

"The era of big government is over," Mr. Clinton famously declared in his 1996 State of the Union address.

That was when federal government spending as a percentage of gross domestic product hovered around 20 per cent. This year, it is set to hit a post-war high of nearly 26 per cent.

Big government is back and most Americans don't like it one bit. A nearly negligible percentage of voters - 6 per cent, according to a recent New York Times/CBS News survey - believe the $860-billion (U.S.) stimulus bill created any jobs. The ABC poll shows that 57 per cent are against additional spending to boost growth if it adds to the $1.5-trillion deficit.

On the day Mr. Obama locked up the 60 Senate votes he needs to finally pass his sweeping Wall Street reform bill, only 44 per cent of Americans questioned in the ABC poll approved of his regulation of the financial industry. Half disapproved, though the poll didn't probe why.

For Mr. Clinton, attacking the deficit turned out to be both good economics and good politics. For Mr. Obama, the choice is not as clear.

The President's top economic advisers are pushing for additional stimulus, fearful that failure to prime the pump more could stunt the recovery or reverse it entirely. Mr. Obama's political team, led by senior adviser David Axelrod and chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, argue the public mood dictates at least the appearance of fiscal restraint.

Tuesday's nomination of Jacob Lew as director of the White House Office of Management and Budget probably says more about where Mr. Obama intends to take the budget debate after the midterm elections than before them. But it likely isn't the change progressives had in mind when they voted for him.

Mr. Lew, who served as OMB director under Mr. Clinton between 1998 and 2001, was hailed by Mr. Obama as "the only budget director in history to preside over a budget surplus for three consecutive years." Before 1998, he was the OMB deputy director who negotiated with Republicans in Congress to reach the Balanced Budget Agreement of 1997.

"Obama supporters have been asked to swallow some painfully prosaic compromises," Eric Alterman writes in a 17,000-word opus in the current issue of The Nation that sums up the left's disenchantment with 'The One' their hard work elected. "It's possible he fooled gullible progressives during the election into believing he was a left-liberal partisan when in fact he is much closer to a conservative corporate shill."

In other words, it's just possible he is Bill Clinton II.

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