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Why Obama is pivoting toward Bill Clinton's policies as Election Day nears

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June 4, 2012: President Barack Obama and former President Bill Clinton wave to the crowd during a campaign event at the New Amsterdam Theater in New York. (AP)

Last week on the ABC’s Sunday morning news program, “This Week,” Rahm Emmanuel, the mayor of Chicago, was asked about what to expect in an Obama second term if he is reelected on November 6.  

Mayor Emmanuel mentioned President Clinton and his policies twice in his answer – the last time stating, explicitly, that “Barack Obama has built policies on the same premises that President Clinton had, investing in America and strengthening America’s foundation, its people, and its economic bedrock.”

Emmanuel is right – and he should know.  He is the only man in America who was a senior adviser and a White House official for both President Clinton and President Obama -- he was President Clinton’s political adviser and President Obama’s chief of staff.  

He knows what I have been writing for the last three years – that in his heart Barack Obama, like President Clinton, is a pragmatic liberal who seeks centrist solution. Like Bill Clinton, he sees nuances between left and right, is a believer in free markets over government command and control, and instinctively seeks a third way to solve problems rather than allowing the ideological purists and nihilists on the extremes create stalemate created by their demonization of each other.

Unfortunately, as President Clinton got stuck with a false label of being “too liberal” in his first term, due to his determination to push the health care plan that so resembles the plan President Obama succeeded in passing. So, too, did President Obama gain this false perception, especially by thoughtful conservatives too quick to accept labels over facts.  

Let’s take the landmark achievement of Obama’s first term – the Affordable Care Act (ACA), now widely known as “ObamaCare.”  In contrast to the depiction of the ACA as a “government takeover,” the facts are the opposite.  The ACA establishes and all private insurance system, purchased on an open Web-Based market place (called an “exchange”) – the epitome of the free market that conservatives proclaim as their ideological foundation.   

It is true that these marketplaces or exchanges are to be run by states (or if they refuse, by the federal government).  But this too is a conservative principle – the devolution of state power and autonomy that is the epitome of conservative principles of federalism and preference to state power over federal power.  

And the Obama administration’s Department of Health and Human Services approved allowing private sector web-based entities to sell insurance to tax-subsidized lower and middle-income families who can’t afford health insurance without help – recognizing the vital role of for-profit private sector companies in enrolling the maximum number of tax-subsidized individuals, along with the state-based “exchanges.”

And note:  Barack Obama supported a system with no public option. The notion that this health care system is socialistic or a government takeover is utter nonsense. In fact, Obama opted for the private sector-government partnerships, with an emphasis on maintaining private medicine, patient choice, and private insurance company competition that is, in combination, a system based on conservative principles.  

That is no accident.  This system was first proposed by conservative think tanks in the 1990s.

So there should be no surprise that Democrats supporting Barack Obama see his second term as an opportunity to emphasize even more his Clintonian-centrist roots.  He no longer has to throw red meat to the extremists in the Democratic Party base who use the language of hate and venom on the Internet and on cable TV panels.  

He no longer has to turn over the keys to domestic initiatives to those who would spend with credit cards, piling up our national debt into more and more trillions of dollars in the whole without regard for the morality of leaving these bills to be paid by our children and our grand-children.  

He can finally –as he recently indicated – take leadership to do the Grand Bargain to reduce the debt by specifically embracing the Simpson-Bowles across-the-board approach of spending cuts, corporate tax cuts, elimination of most business tax loopholes, and major Social Security and Medicare reforms.

President Obama asked President Clinton to deliver his nominating speech at the Convention for a reason.  He wanted to remind the nation that his administration has been a continuation of the Clinton record of consensus, fiscal responsibility, social moderation and, most important, proof that a Democratic president can be both pro-business, pro-private sector, and progressive at the same time.

If President Obama can deliver that Clintonian “third way” message in his final week of this campaign to all Americans, I believe he will win the election on November 6.

A version of this opinion piece also appeared in The Hill newspaper and on TheHill.com.

Lanny Davis, a Washington attorney and principal in the firm of Lanny J. Davis & Associates, specializing in legal crisis management and dispute resolution, served as President Clinton’s special counsel from 1996-98 and as a member of President Bush’s Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board from 2006-07. He currently serves as special counsel to Dilworth Paxson and is the author of the new book, "Crisis Tales: Five Rules for Coping With Crises in Business, Politics, and Life," (Simon & Schuster March 2013). Follow him on Twitter at @LannyDavis.

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