11.08.11

Bill Clinton Schools Obama

The White House can’t be thrilled that the previous Democratic president is criticizing his economic policy. But Eleanor Clift says the incumbent is already borrowing Clintonian ideas. Plus, the 7 juiciest bits from Bill's new book.

President Obama and his team surely must be irked that Bill Clinton has once again eased his way back onto center stage with his own prescriptions for putting people back to work.

After all, the 44th president has spent the year struggling with a 9 percent unemployment rate and haranguing the GOP to pass a jobs bill, only to see the 42nd president tackle the subject—with some mild criticism.

In a new book, essentially a replay of ideas he spelled out in Newsweek earlier this year, Clinton serves up traditional Democratic fare that in kinder, gentler times Republicans backed. The former president, smiling and confident, graces the cover of Back to Work: Why We Need Smart Government for a Strong Economy.

Whatever private resentments administration officials may harbor, they don’t dare voice them publicly—especially since Clinton’s wife is employed at Foggy Bottom. Press secretary Jay Carney welcomed the book, saying it “reinforces the positive steps President Obama has taken,” underscoring the need to “focus with great intensity” on creating jobs.

Obama and the Democrats need the former president, his popularity, his gift for synthesizing policy in a compelling way, and his boundless energy on the campaign trail. On the Clinton side, William Galston, who was Clinton’s domestic policy adviser in the White House, says there’s no percentage in the Clintonites “snarkily” recalling how Obama disparaged Clinton’s use of “small ball” measures like advocating for school uniforms or V-chips for parents to monitor their children’s television viewing. “Everybody has something to learn from the master,” says Galston, now with the Brookings Institution.

After dissing Clinton during the 2008 primaries as a president who fell short of being transformational and belittling his mini-policies, Obama is now borrowing from the Clinton playbook with small but symbolic actions of his own. Just as Clinton turned to governing by executive order after the Republicans won control of the House and Senate in 1994, Obama’s frustration with the legislative process has led him to a parallel strategy that is more than cosmetic but less than sweeping.

In recent days he has unveiled plans, sometimes leaked for maximum coverage, to help homeowners refinance their mortgages, reform student loan processing, aid veterans in finding jobs, and enable the Food and Drug Administration to reduce drug shortages. Such an approach conveys to voters a sense the president is on their side, forging an emotional connection that came easily to Clinton but has eluded Obama.

The recent uptick in Obama’s job-approval rating appears related to his adopting an edgier rhetorical tone, then backing it up with specific actions—follow-through that has been missing through much of his presidency. In his book, Clinton rebukes Obama and the Democrats for failing to mount an effective counter-campaign to the GOP’s negativity.

As Clinton goes around the country talking about his book and his ideas, “he will be framing them in a way that helps President Obama,” says Galston. “He’s a better framer and explainer than the current occupant, and among political observers, there’s not a lot of disagreement about that.”

Clinton revisits the contentious debate over raising the debt ceiling last summer, faulting the White House for failing to negotiate a compromise while they still controlled the House. The time for that was in the lame duck session after the 2010 election, but the White House apparently was so cowed by the election results that officials reportedly took the word of GOP leaders that the vote could be postponed until the new year without courting disaster. “Whatever the reason,” says Galston, “it was incomprehensible and showed catastrophically poor judgment.”

The similarities between the Republican opposition that Clinton faced and what Obama must now confront are more mirror images, says Galston, who saw firsthand the Clinton denouement in ’94 and his comeback to handily win a second term. The usual pattern is to nail down your base as early as possible and spend much of election year reaching out to independents. Obama is doing the reverse, after having spent so much of 2011 in a futile quest for consensus. The strategy to rebuild his standing with independent voters was a total failure, says Galston. Obama ends the year in worse shape with these critical voters and has now tacked toward his liberal supporters, the reverse of the Clintonian sequence.

Clinton stared down the Republican Congress in ’95 and ’96, and was then able to do business in a way that cemented his reelection. After Clinton vetoed welfare reform twice, Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole reportedly begged House Speaker Newt Gingrich not to give the president a third bite of the apple. Clinton calculated that he could secure reelection if he redeemed his signature campaign promise to end welfare as we know it, and he signed a modified version of the bill the third time around. Today’s Republicans are not likely to give Obama that kind of opportunity. They’ve learned lessons too.