12.09.10

Bill's Message for Barack

Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have scheduled a pow-wow at the White House today. Here’s hoping Obama listens to what Bill has to say.

So Barack and Bubba are scheduled for a tê te-à -tê te today. They've got a lot to talk about, and for the first time, Obama is going to have to be the humble one.

Sure, the two have "issues." But both are also way beyond "issues." If there's one thing neither Bill Clinton nor Barack Obama can be accused of, it's an inability to rise above issues of personal pique to do what needs to be done.

Much as he might enjoy Obama's political failings (and failings), Bill Clinton is obviously deeply invested in the success of the Obama administration, given his wife's status as its second most important denizen. And it just so happens, Clinton is the only person alive with the requisite experience to advise Obama how to proceed.

Topic # 1 undoubtedly is how to rebound from a " shellacking" to win reelection. And although history doesn't repeat itself, Clinton has lessons to impart. He failed to pass health care, and pissed off the NRA and military commanders. But when his party lost 53 seats during the 1994 election, he had a story to tell: The Republicans were for big corporations; the Democrats were for the unions. And he was going to fight like hell to make the government work for ordinary people, doing stuff like school uniforms, v-chips and, well, I don't remember what. The point is, the economy got better, and Clinton won reelection.

Today, many Democrats are focused, in horror, on the unemployment rate, which hovers near 10 percent. But the issue—beyond the numbers—is not well understood. If the economy is getting better, and unemployment is going down, the president will probably win reelection because people are no longer afraid of being out of work. If it's moving in the other direction, then there's not much the president can do come time for the polls. That's why Clinton promised he was going to "focus on the economy like a laser beam." Clinton knew he would be judged on those numbers; that everything else was just about damage control.

Accordingly, if Bill wants to be Barack's friend, he will make him understand the fact that the passage of the historic health-care reform bill, along with the historic financial-reform bill (and a bunch of other stuff), don't amount to a hill a beans if the president doesn't succeed in getting the unemployment numbers down. That's why, I'm guessing, Bill is just fine with the tax deal. It may be unfair to working American men and women—to say nothing about poor people whose taxes are actually likely to rise—but as even Paul Krugman must admit, it's probably a good thing on the jobs front.

The president needs a story to tell about where he hopes to lead this country—and how he plans to do it. Bill Clinton has a barrel full of such stories.

Clinton was lucky enough to have Newt Gingrich as his dancing partner. Villains like that usually only come in comic books. Sure, John Boehner is orange, he played golf 119 times in one year, and his brand new "policy director," is, (conveniently) a top K Street lobbyist. But the fellow is still not anything like Newt Gingrich. As Newt himself explained to Peter Baker, "Clinton was able to pivot with me because I was a large enough figure that Clinton could say to the left, 'You really want Gingrich?' And they'd go, 'O.K., even though we're really mad at you, we're not that mad at you.' This may be an argument for the Boehner model."

So what is Barack to do? Jon Meacham argues that the year they should recall together is not 1994 but 1990, with Barack Obama cast in the role of the man Clinton defeated—George H.W. Bush. Remember when Bush went back on his "Read My Lips" pledge? He had nobody left to turn to. Republicans now knew he was not one of them, and so, when Clinton went after him in the debates, he was all but alone in his corner. (Or alone with Dan Quayle, which amounts to about the same thing.)

Obama is risking a similar fate by cutting a tax deal that relies on the opposition party to defeat his own. Therein lies his conundrum: He can't win reelection unless he gets unemployment numbers down and he can't get unemployment down unless he caves into Republicans, which will cost him his own party.

And yes, it's his own fault, but—as Bill Clinton can tell you—that matters only until someone else screws up even worse. Either way, more than anything, the president needs a story to tell about where he hopes to lead this country—and how he plans to do it. Bill Clinton has a barrel full of such stories. Obama better hope he's got a good one to spare.

Eric Alterman is a Distinguished Professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College, a senior fellow of the Center for American Progress and media columnist for The Nation. His newest book, Kabuki Democracy: The System vs. Barack Obama, is available for preorder.