Skip to main content
ABC News
Will It Be 1995 All Over Again?

With the Democrats still in control of the Senate and Barack Obama in the White House, there is little that the new Republican majority in the House of Representatives can do before 2013 to enact legislation. The health care overhaul will not be repealed, and social welfare programs will not be cut — at least, not unless Mr. Obama wants them to be, or until a Republican occupies the White House.

What the Republicans can do now, though, is use their leverage over the budget process. On spending matters, Congress is compelled to act every year merely to maintain the status quo. Sooner or later — perhaps over raising the federal debt ceiling, perhaps over authorizing funds to put Mr. Obama’s health care overhaul into effect — there is likely to be a showdown between the House Republican leaders and the president.

The most recent precedent is a favorable one for Mr. Obama: the 1995 government shutdown. The public largely blamed Republicans for the mess rather than Bill Clinton, whose standing rose as a result; he went on to win re-election the following year.

There are no guarantees that the outcome would be the same this time around. Among many other variables, the personalities of both the president and the Republican leaders are significantly different now; the media environment has changed; and the Great Recession would color the debate in 2011 more than the recession of 1990-91 did in 1995, when it was well back in the rearview mirror.

Still, the polling data is eerily similar.

Mr. Obama’s approval rating has risen a few points in recent weeks, and is now at roughly 50 percent in the average poll. Mr. Clinton’s approval rating was at 54 percent in November 1995, just before the shutdown began, according to both Gallup and Washington Post surveys.

A Pew poll conducted in October 1995, meanwhile, found that 36 percent of respondents approved of the job that Republican leaders in Congress were doing. The figure right now is the same, according to an AP-GfK poll, or a bit lower at 30 percent, according to Quinnipiac; both surveys were released last week.

Surveys conducted before the 1995 shutdown found that the public largely viewed Mr. Clinton as capable of compromise, but not the Republicans. Similarly, in this week’s NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, 55 percent said they expected the Republicans to be too inflexible in negotiations with President Obama, but only 26 percent said they expected that of Mr. Obama.

The situations are not completely identical. Working in the Republicans’ favor is the fact that their speaker, John A. Boehner of Ohio — despite the White House’s occasional efforts to demonize him — is viewed neutrally or even somewhat warmly by the public, to the extent that they have an opinion about him at all. This contrasts with Newt Gingrich, the speaker in 1995, whose disapproval ratings were already in the high 40’s when the showdown came.

On the other hand, after the Republican Party’s forceful performance in the midterm elections, rank-and-file Republican voters and back-bench members of Congress may lose patience if the House leadership does not directly confront Mr. Obama, especially on issues like health care and the national debt.

There may be rewards in doing so — but as 1995 illustrates, there are also great risks.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.