Obama Hit With Friendly Fire on Economy, Climate Change from Bill Clinton, Al Gore

The White House is not happy about criticism on the economy and climate change from Clinton and Gore.

Guillermo Arias / AP Photos

The White House is not happy about two essays this week from the leaders of the Clinton-Gore administration.

A senior official and three White House allies say that at the very least the pair of articles stepped on the administration’s message and failed to give the president adequate credit for pursuing progressive policies.

In a NEWSWEEK cover story, Bill Clinton offers his prescriptions on fixing the ailing economy, reminding voters—unhelpfully, from the White House perspective—that 14 million Americans remain out of work. The piece was part of the runup to the annual Clinton Global Initiative.

Days later, Al Gore suddenly surfaced after months of silence to assail President Obama for his failure to lead on climate change.

“Obama has never presented to the American people the magnitude of the climate crisis,” Gore writes in a 7,000-word essay for Rolling Stone, posted online Wednesday. “He has not defended the science against the ongoing withering and dishonest attacks. Nor has he provided a presidential venue for the scientific community…to bring the reality of the science before the public."

A White House spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.

The Gore attack and the Clinton critique were certainly not coordinated – the two men rarely speak – but they landed at the White House at a sensitive time, as Obama is struggling to gain traction on the economy and rally a demoralized liberal base for a tough reelection fight.

“Helpful as always,” says a Democratic operative consultant who has worked for and against the Clintons, when asked about the Clinton game plan for economic renewal. What frustrates White House officials is that Obama is doing, or is trying to do, most of the things that Clinton advocates, from easing the regulatory burden on business to promoting green energy jobs, and yet it’s Clinton’s mug that gets the spotlight.

There will always be static between the Clinton and Obama camps, and cooler heads say it’s not personal, it’s business. “He wants people to remember what he did on the economy,” says Robert Shrum, a former adviser to both the 42nd president and his vice president. “It’s all about legacy.”

Still, having Clinton out there is not all bad. He can’t break the deadlock with Republicans on Capitol Hill, but he does help with voters. “Having President Clinton reminding people about the Democratic record when we had a balanced approach to taxation and reducing the deficit is a helpful thing,” says Anita Dunn, Obama’s first communications director.

Frustration with Clinton is tempered by the realization that by Clinton standards, he’s been better behaved than anybody thought  possible after the bitter primary battle between his wife and Obama. Al Gore, whose piece included criticism of the media coverage on global warming, is another story. Some Democrats blame Gore for driving down poll ratings for support on climate change. Although his film, An Inconvenient Truth, won an Oscar, it contained what a Democratic consultant called “classic Gore overstatements” that gave ammo to global warming skeptics. “If you talk with anyone seriously looking at next steps on this issue, nobody wants to be associated with Gore,” says one Democratic strategist who has tangled with the ex-veep and declines to be identified.

Not everyone feels that harshly toward the former veep, and some Democrats think his criticism on climate change, while it hurts with the base, could actually be helpful with the broader electorate because it makes Obama look more centrist. Shrum, who managed Gore’s ill-fated 2000 campaign for president, says that when Gore decided not to run again that he made a choice to be a prophet, not a politician, “and the job of a prophet is to speak truth to power.” Shrum imagines that Obama wouldn’t argue with Gore’s premise, that there has not been “bold action” on climate change. What Gore doesn’t acknowledge is that it’s probably not possible to make more progress than Obama has, made given the harsh partisan political climate and the weakest economy since the Great Depression.

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There is no reason for Gore to let up, Shrum argues. He’s a Democrat, but he’s foremost an activist on climate change. Shrum likens it to the tension over civil rights when John F. Kennedy was in the White House. “JFK had a sense of when he could and couldn’t move on civil rights. Dr. King kept pushing, and Kennedy said go ahead and push,” says Shrum.

Gore allows that he is stirring up trouble for his side. “Those of us who support and admire President Obama understand how difficult the politics of this issue are in the context of the massive opposition to doing anything at all — or even to recognizing that there is a crisis,” he writes. “And assuming that the Republicans come to their senses and avoid nominating a clown, his re-election is likely to involve a hard-fought battle with high stakes for the country. All of his supporters understand that it would be self-defeating to weaken Obama and heighten the risk of another step backward. Even writing an article like this one carries risks; opponents of the president will excerpt the criticism and strip it of context. But in this case, the president has reality on his side.”