From Clinton to Obama, many parallels

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WASHINGTON -- Thousands of pages of documents from former President Bill Clinton's White House years affirm a longtime adage: The more things change, the more they stay the same.

As Mr. 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, Mr. 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 Mr. 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 ultimately perceived could become a deciding point for the fate of Mr. 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 Mr. 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 during his tenure, 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 Mrs. Clinton to pick issues and events accentuating her personal side, not wonky interests, and recommended that she do more listening.

As Mrs. 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 Mrs. 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, Mr. 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 that 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 Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan., who became the GOP presidential nominee against Mr. Clinton in 1996.


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