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Opinion: Columnists

Noemie Emery: The Clinton Effect may not help Obama

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Opinion,Noemie Emery,Columnists,Barack Obama,Hillary Clinton,Bill Clinton

As drowning men clutch at straws, presidents in trouble often cling to Harry Truman's 1948 upset re-election for hope. But President Obama may be looking to President Clinton's 1998 midterm for assurance that all will be well.

Under assault since the winter, Clinton was buoyed by scandal fatigue plus a booming economy, and Republicans lost five House seats instead of gaining the 15 they expected. Democrats cite these as reasons the current wave of scandals will backfire on the Republicans.

But here is why it won't:

First, Clinton had one small scandal, neatly cut off from the business of government. Obama has three pretty big ones -- Benghazi, the IRS, and the crackdown on journalists -- all involved in key facets of statecraft, with one or two others, the Verizon phone scandal, and the Kathleen Sebelius shakedown of health industry leaders, waiting their turn in the wings.

Clinton's real sin -- the lie under oath in a legal proceeding -- was public enough, but the sin that the lie was meant to conceal was a personal flaw, arguably with no direct bearing on his conduct as president, or on most people's lives.

This gravitas gap --- between the sin of the lie, and the sin that the lie was intended to cover -- was the reason the public refused to engage in the struggle, sharing neither the conservative view that Clinton deserved to be drummed out of office, nor the liberals' insistence that nothing was wrong.

In the end, people thought Clinton ought to be smacked about some, but not forced to leave office, and that impeachment followed by an acquittal was what he had coming.

By contrast, everything about all these new scandals is public, and, with four dead Americans, very serious. Lying about why they died also is serious. Media pressure is serious. And thumbs on the scales in presidential elections is the most serious business of all.

Some say that "recovery" will be his salvation, but this seems a very frail reed. Back then, we had real prosperity, and at least the illusion of global stability. These days, peace and prosperity are in short supply.

It's clear now that al Qaeda hasn't been beaten. The Middle East is a cauldron. The economy has "improved" only in contrast to the five years before this one, and because so many people have stopped seeking work.

Clinton's job approval ratings were around 60 percent in his year of scandal; Obama's are 12 to 15 points lower. His right track/wrong track assessment is woefully low.

"Republican overreach" (which may really mean tough questions) is another crowd pleaser, and may be another false hope. Much of the nausea in 1998-99 came from graphic descriptions of carnal adventures, which in this case are missing.

No one has shot at a melon, a la Rep. Dan Burton, or called Obama bad names. "The Republicans have not overplayed their hand," Slate political correspondent John Dickerson tells us. "Unlike the late 1990s, they have the country with them in their pursuit of answers [and] the public wants Republicans to make their case."

Democrats skirted disaster in 1998-99, but did not in the end win too much. Republicans lost House seats, but kept their majority. The real impact of the Clinton scandals would come two years later, when the Clinton legacy was a drag on Vice President Al Gore and gave Texas Gov. George W. Bush an opening to ask for a change in an age of prosperity.

Democrats might want to think this one over. A lifeboat may be steaming toward the SS Obama. But right now it is nowhere in sight.

Washington Examiner Columnist Noemie Emery is contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and author of "Great Expectations: The Troubled Lives of Political Families."

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