The Byzantine relations between President Obama and former President Bill Clinton could fill several psychology textbooks, providing juicy examples of passive aggression, older man/younger man competition, complex alliances (Hillary as secretary of state is the perfect embodiment of the maxim to “keep your friends close but your enemies closer”), and mutual interests.
That the president needs Bill Clinton now to make his case to the country must be richly satisfying to the only American whose ego can compete with Barack H. Obama’s.
Let’s recall that one of Obama’s supposed triumphs in 2008 was defeating the vaunted Clinton machine. The Democratic Party’s delirium for Obama supposedly obliterated the Clinton magic. After winning the South Carolina primary in January, Obama exulted that “we’re up against the conventional thinking that says your ability to lead as president comes from longevity in Washington. … But we know that real leadership is about candor and judgment and the ability to rally Americans … around a higher purpose … ” Though he never tired (and still doesn’t) of insulting George W. Bush, that barb wasn’t aimed at him. It was for the Clintons.
Bill Clinton, for his part, nurses grudges. Obama eclipsed Clinton as the most charismatic Democrat. The former president and his wife also got a crash course in media bias. Obama spoiled the Clintons’ carefully nurtured plan of returning to the White House and achieving vindication. And, as someone who preened himself on his high standing among blacks (Toni Morrison called him America’s “first black president”), Clinton was justly outraged when Obama supporters Donna Brazile and Rep. Jim Clyburn accused him of racism in 2008 because he referred to Obama as a “kid” and dismissed his Iraq war stance as a “fairy tale.” Good thing he didn’t use the word “Chicago” or mention “golf” — as those are now “dog whistles” we’re told.
Now His Royal Majesty needs old Bill. He needs him to mount the stage in Charlotte, N.C., and persuade waverers to re-elect The One. Why? Because Clinton, for all his squalid ways and for all that he was a practitioner par excellence of what Obama disdained as the “old politics,” has something Obama lacks — a successful economic legacy to brag about.
The wizardry that will permit Clinton to obscure Obama’s record — or to throw the mantle of Clinton economic success over Obama economic failure — isn’t entirely clear. In fact, this could easily backfire.
A swing voter could well glance at the screen and recall that Clinton heeded the voters, whereas Obama thumbed his nose. After suffering a rebuke in 1994, Clinton backed away from Hillarycare, tax increases, opposition to welfare reform and huge increases in federal spending. With Republicans controlling the Congress, Bill Clinton — after some resistance and after insisting it couldn’t be done — signed a balanced budget.
The combination of the end of the Cold War and the dot.com bubble gave Clinton’s first term respectable economic growth of 3.2 percent. But the real boom came toward the latter half of his second term, after Clinton (reluctantly) signed welfare reform, a dramatic cut in the capital gains tax from 28 percent to 20 percent, and a phased-in reduction in the estate (or death) tax, which exempted estates up to $1 million from $600,000. Clinton lobbied for and got the North American Free Trade Agreement and maintained a strong dollar. With Republicans in Congress demanding spending restraint, the federal government — younger readers may be incredulous — ran a surplus.
The results, as Charles Kadlec recalls in Forbes, were impressive. Economic growth jumped to 4.2 percent. Unemployment fell from 5.4 to 4 percent. Average real wages improved. Millions of Americans shared in the general prosperity as their 401(k)s swelled with the rising stock market. Investors responded with enthusiasm to the sense that America was a business-friendly country. Venture capital exploded.
Obama has chosen the exact opposite response to voter disaffection. Unlike Clinton, Obama is a committed leftist. He doubled down on Obamacare, ramming it through in an ugly, totally partisan vote. He refuses to budge on his insistence on tax increases — though he has himself acknowledged that tax hikes are counterproductive in a weak economy. He has attempted to undo the key feature of welfare reform, the work requirement. And he has presided over the downgrading of America’s AAA credit rating as he races heedlessly into crippling levels of federal debt.
Bill Clinton can attempt to perfume Obama’s record — but the truth is that Obama has chosen the exact opposite policies. The results speak more eloquently than either man can.