Just when it seemed President Obama was rallying his Democratic base anew, he still can’t escape the long shadow of his most recent Democratic predecessor.
In an extensive interview with the leading conservative news website Newsmax, former President Bill Clinton undercut Obama’s leading economic message about raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans.
“I personally don’t believe we ought to be raising taxes or cutting spending until we get this economy off the ground,” Clinton said. In just 23 words, Clinton undercut his party’s current standard-bearer—and Obama’s current negotiating chit with Republicans. And to add injury to insult, the silver-tongued, silver-haired 42nd president with the Arkansas drawl did it in a magazine favored by conservative critics of the current president.
And Clinton didn’t stop there. Seizing upon the political paralysis between the White House and Republicans in Congress, Clinton lectured Obama and Republican Speaker John Boehner, calling for them to put aside their differences.
“What I would like to say to the president and Speaker Boehner is, OK, you both have your deal. Go work it out. Meanwhile, focus on putting Americans back to work because it just confused Americans. Americans lost the fact that whatever you feel about this millionaire surcharge, it won’t solve the problem.”
The White House declined to comment on the record regarding the remarks, but a senior spokesman conceded privately Wednesday night to being surprised and displeased. It certainly wasn’t the first time the elder statesman of the Democratic Party brushed up against Obama, publicly body-checking his successor without offering advanced warning to senior White House staff, as tends to be customary in high-level politics, especially among members of the same party.
Clearly enjoying the megaphone he retains as a former president and spouse of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the elder statesman has second-guessed Obama’s decisions, at times even offering unsolicited advice in the media.
A month after Obama took office, Clinton told an interviewer that the new president needed to “put on a more positive face.” About a year later, he critiqued Obama as not being more forceful with Democrats dragging their feet on health-care reform. Then this summer Clinton penned a cover story for Newsweek, offering Obama a list of 14 ways to put more people back to work. Senior White House officials ended up borrowing some of the ideas—including cutting corporate taxes and investing in energy—that became part of Obama’s broader message to grow the economy.
When together, Clinton and Obama appear cordial and cool. Senior officials insist there’s no bad blood—including over the messy 2008 Democratic primary where Obama beat Hillary Clinton for the nomination after months of her husband questioning her opponent’s experience and knack for leadership. The two men have even come together to focus their message and capitalize on their combined voices. During a visit to the Oval Office in December 2010, the pair had such a nice time talking economic strategy and how to extend the Bush tax cuts that they surprised reporters with an impromptu press conference in the White House briefing room.
But from a public viewpoint, the president who left office in 2000 with an approval rating of 66 percent has at times eclipsed the younger, more embattled leader, whether intentionally or not.
Clinton’s comments on tax policy may become the stuff of Republican TV attack ads or fundraising brochures. But they’re unlikely to move the needle of the actual debate over the country’s long-term debt, currently in a deadlock and with no obvious endgame.
Obama’s bigger problem may be the spectacle of his occasionally playing second fiddle to his loquacious predecessor. And Clinton doesn’t appear eager to change that perception. When asked about upcoming elections in 2012 or 2016, Clinton shrewdly, and tellingly, referred to his wife, Hillary, rather than Obama, as “the ablest person in my generation.”