08.07.11

Hillary Told You So

As Democratic disgust with Obama’s debt fumbling spreads, Clinton supporters recall her '3 a.m. phone call' warnings—and angry, frustrated liberals are muttering that she should mount a 2012 challenge.

At a New York political event last week, Republican and Democratic office-holders were all bemoaning President Obama’s handling of the debt-ceiling crisis when someone said, “Hillary would have been a better president.”

“Every single person nodded, including the Republicans,” reported one observer.

At a luncheon in the members’ dining room at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Saturday, a 64-year-old African-American from the Bronx was complaining about Obama’s ineffectiveness in dealing with the implacable hostility of congressional Republicans when an 80-year-old lawyer chimed in about the president’s unwillingness to stand up to his opponents. “I want to see blood on the floor,” she said grimly.

A 61-year-old white woman at the table nodded. “He never understood about the ‘vast right-wing conspiracy,’” she said.

Looking as if she were about to cry, an 83-year-old Obama supporter shook her head. “I’m so disappointed in him,” she said. “It’s true: Hillary is tougher.”

During the last few days, the whispers have swelled to an angry chorus of frustration about Obama’s perceived weaknesses. Many Democrats are furious and heartbroken at how ineffectual he seemed in dealing with Republican opponents over the debt ceiling, and liberals are particularly incensed by what they see as his capitulation to conservatives on fundamental liberal principles.

In Connecticut, a businessman who raised money for Obama in 2008 said, “I’m beyond disgusted.” In New Jersey, a teacher reported that even her friends in the Obama administration are grievously disillusioned with his lack of leadership—and many have begun to whisper about a Democratic challenge for the 2012 presidential nomination. “I think people are furtively hoping that Hillary runs,” she said.

The son of a longtime Democratic congressman from Texas, a 73-year-old lawyer, is so enraged with Obama that he’s threatening not to vote for the 2012 Democratic ticket—the first time in his entire life that he’s contemplated such apostasy.

Among many of the 18 million Americans who supported Hillary Clinton in 2008, the reaction is simple and bitter: “We told you so.”

On Real Time With Bill Maher, the host said that as far as he was concerned, Obama might as well be a Republican, and added that he thought last week represented the tipping point in Obama’s presidency. Wondering if liberals have “buyer’s remorse” about Obama, Maher asked his panel whether Clinton would have been a better president.

“Yes,” replied astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium, adding that Clinton would have been “a more effective negotiator in the halls of Congress.”

“She knows how to deal with difficult men,” Maher agreed.

Among Clinton fans, particularly older women, the language was frequently far more caustic. “Obama has no spine and no balls,” said a 67-year-old New Yorker.

In recent days, political conversations from inside the Beltway to office water coolers all over America have abounded with unflattering comparisons between Obama and President Lyndon Baines Johnson, a Capitol Hill veteran who was a master of knocking heads to get things done. A Texas Democrat, Johnson served as a representative, a senator, the Senate minority leader, the Senate majority leader, and vice president before becoming president when John F. Kennedy was assassinated. “Unlike Obama, he knew how to work the system,” said one political reporter.

In his New York Times Sunday Review essay “What Happened to Obama?” Emory University psychology professor Drew Westen summed up the president’s lack of experience with devastating succinctness.

“Those of us who were bewitched by his eloquence on the campaign trail chose to ignore some disquieting aspects of his biography: that he had accomplished very little before he ran for president, having never run a business or a state; that he had a singularly unremarkable career as a law professor, publishing nothing in 12 years at the University of Chicago other than an autobiography; and that, before joining the United States Senate, he occasionally, as a state senator in Illinois, voted ‘present’ on difficult issues,” wrote Westen, author of The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation.

The presidential scholar Matthew Dickinson went even further with a post under the headline “Run, Hillary, Run!” on the blog Presidential Power. “She did warn you,” Dickinson reminded his readers.

“Remember that 3 a.m. phone call? Remember the warning about the rose-colored petals falling from the sky? Remember about learning on the job? Sure you do. Doesn’t a part of you, deep down, realize she was right?” wrote Dickinson, a political-science professor at Middlebury College. “If I heard it once this last week, I heard it a thousand times: You were duped by Obama’s rhetoric—the whole ‘hopey-changey’ thing. And you wanted to be part of history, too—to help break down the ultimate racial barrier. That’s OK. We were all young once. But now it’s time to elect someone who can play hardball, who understands how to be ruthless, who will be a real ... uh ... tough negotiator in office. There won’t be any debate about Hillary’s, er, ‘man-package.’”

Among Clinton fans, particularly older women, the language was frequently far more caustic. “Obama has no spine and no balls,” said a 67-year-old New Yorker.

Other observers contrasted the president’s declining popularity with Clinton’s widely acclaimed performance as secretary of State. “To be blunt, her resume outshines the incumbent’s,” wrote Dickinson, noting that Clinton’s approval rating is close to 70 percent while Obama’s is around 40 percent.

Such polls notwithstanding, insiders insist that Clinton will not challenge her president for the 2012 nomination, and many pundits dismiss the idea as political suicide. “A challenge from Clinton would be a complete disaster, both for her and for the Democrats,” wrote Jon Bernstein on the Plain Blog political site.

Political experts point out that Republicans’ hatred of the Clintons in the 1990s was just as virulent as their efforts to destroy Obama’s presidency in the last couple of years. Longtime analysts also remember the carnage that ensued when Sen. Ted Kennedy challenged President Carter for the 1980 Democratic nomination, fracturing the party and paving the way for Ronald Reagan’s election. Four years earlier, Reagan himself had challenged an incumbent Republican, President Gerald Ford; Reagan lost the nomination, Ford lost the presidency, and Carter was elected.

However unlikely a Democratic challenger might seem at present, Obama would be foolish not to heed the deep dissatisfaction represented by such speculation, which is now spreading like an ominous brush fire. Given the abundance of devastating economic news lately, he would also do well to remember the Clintons’ rallying cry from the 1992 election.

“There’s no question in my mind that Obama is a one-term president,” says one passionate Democrat. “Even if he were a great president, this economy is a calamity. And in the end, ‘It’s the economy, stupid.’”

“No one ever had to tell Hillary that,” says a disgruntled member of Clinton’s 18 million.