Politics

06.02.12

Bill Clinton: Two-Edged Sword for President Obama

He’s the best campaign asset a Democratic incumbent president could have. But as Obama is learning anew, his support comes at a cost. Michelle Cottle on the other alpha male in the race.

You knew Bill Clinton wouldn’t be able to stay quiet for long.

As if Team Obama weren’t already struggling in its attempts to hang Bain Capital around Mitt Romney’s neck, Clinton popped up on Piers Morgan Thursday night criticizing the attacks on Bain and praising Romney’s business savvy.

“I don’t think we ought to get into the position where we say this is bad work; this is good work,” said Clinton. “There’s no question that, in terms of getting up, going to the office, and basically performing the essential functions of the office, a man who’s been governor and had a sterling business career crosses the qualification threshold.”

“Sterling”? Ouch. Talk about kicking a teammate when he’s down.

Unsurprisingly, the political media jumped on the remarks like a duck on a June bug, with much buzzing about whether this would be the final blow to what has so far proved an ineffectual, if not outright unproductive, line of attack for Obama. It’s one thing to have Cory Booker criticize the president’s campaign strategy. Or Ed Rendell. Or Deval Patrick. Who really gives a flying fig? But Clinton? For Dems, that’s like having Elvis talk smack about your singing. (And, unlike Booker, Clinton is unlikely to be cowed into backpedaling by the White House.) Team O will need more than Band-Aids and a bottle of Bactine to take the sting out of this one.

This episode illuminates the omnipresent peril the current president faces in having such a high-profile, high-octane frenemy. (No one out there really believes these two super-touchy alpha males have really worked through all their issues, do they?) Clinton is the original political rock star, and the media remain utterly captivated by his every burp, cough, and hiccup. Dems worship him as their only two-term president since FDR. And in a bit of crazy, shameless revisionism, Republicans are suddenly singing Bill’s praises as a sensible moderate Dem whose legacy is being trashed by lefty-extremist Obama.

At this point, Clinton may pack greater political punch than any other figure out there. Well, except maybe Hillary.

Having such a celebrity on his team has undeniable advantages for Obama. For instance, in recent days I’ve gotten multiple emails (one from “Bill Clinton” himself!!!) alerting me to the chance to win two tickets to a joint Obama-Clinton event taking place June 4 in New York City. All I have to do is donate $3, and—voilà!—I’m automatically entered in the contest.

It’s one thing to have Cory Booker criticize the president’s campaign strategy. Or Ed Rendell. Or Deval Patrick. Who really gives a flying fig? But Clinton? For Dems, that’s like having Elvis talk smack about your singing.

In his email missive, “Clinton” goes on at some length about how Obama has “been an excellent president—and no one has made it easy for him.” He warns that “the other side wants to go back to doing exactly what they did before—this time, on steroids.” And he assures us all: “I told President Obama I’m ready to fight alongside him until November.”

Team Obama likely felt better about that pledge before they realized that Clinton’s role in the fight would include dispensing the occasional shot of tough love through the not-so-private conduit of cable news.

Paul Begala, who helped elect the man, sees an upside for Obama in all this. “President Clinton brings you very high benefit at very low cost,” says Begala, a Newsweek/Daily Beast columnist. “The Romney campaign is making a strategic mistake to make WJC central to the economic debate. Sure, they pounce tactically today, but all they are doing is elevating President Clinton so when he drops the hammer on Romney economics in the fall, it will hurt more.”

“Ask any politician in America—no, the world—if he or she would want Bill Clinton to campaign for them,” Begala continues, “and the answer would be, ‘Is this a trick question?’”

Still, as we all have learned over the years: When it comes to Bill Clinton, you take the good with the bad.