The Clintonites’ Beef With Obama

It’s not his policies they complain about but his messaging. Is that fair?

It’s April 2010, and an exploded BP rig is hemorrhaging oil into the Gulf of Mexico. President Bill Clinton, racing to the scene, leaps into the ocean “in a wet suit, trying to plug the leak personally.”

This half-serious whimsy, which appears in Ed Rendell’s latest book, A Nation of Wusses, is as much Clinton worship as it is Obama criticism; Barack Obama’s “substantive response [to the spill] had been right on target in every way,” writes the former Pennsylvania governor and staunch Clinton ally. “But [the] president hadn’t been visible enough down in the Gulf.” Rendell’s dig is a curious inversion of a recurrent right-wing attack: Obama, Rendell suggests, is all substance and no style. It’s also emblematic of a broader Clintonite critique of the president, one that has as much to do with well-intentioned frustration as with rose-tinted 1990s nostalgia.

This critique should not be confused with other popular left-leaning attacks on the president. It bears no relation, for instance, to the progressive charge that Obama didn’t push for a bigger economic stimulus bill, or hard enough for a public option, and that he caved to the banks in negotiating the bailout and the subsequent financial reform legislation. Nor would you hear it from centrist ex-Clinton strategists like Mark Penn and Doug Schoen, who decry the current president’s “divisive” policies on Fox News.

Instead, Rendell — along with a halfdozen former Clinton officials I spoke to — agree with Obama’s policies, but argue that he’s failed to use the presidential bully pulpit to sell them to the public. According to Rendell, Obama let the GOP define down his foremost legislative achievements — health care reform and the stimulus — and paid the price in the 2010 midterm elections. “How many Americans know that more than 40 percent of the stimulus spending was for tax cuts?” Rendell writes. “Hardly any, because it was never explained to them.”

It’s a refrain I heard often. “There has been, among the Clinton people, a concern that [Obama] hasn’t been consistently effective at the bully pulpit,” one former member of Clinton’s senior staff told me. “Clinton has a unique ability to infuse policy arguments with real passion. And that energy has at times been lacking in this president.” Bill Galston, a Brookings scholar and former Clinton adviser, was harsher. “His apparent inability to turn his communication skills as a campaigner [into] campaign skills as a sitting president is his single biggest failure.” Added another official, who worked in both White Houses, “Obama ran a campaign that was about selling not a vision of government, but a vision of himself.” Four years later, he’s still not “campaigning on what he’s accomplished and what he’s done.”

“Bully pulpit” is an awfully broad term. William Safire, in his indispensable Political Dictionary, defined it as the “active use of the presidency’s prestige and high visibility to inspire or moralize.” That meaning is consonant with the Clintonite critique, but it doesn’t completely do it justice. Lurking beneath the chronic gripe that Obama failed to “pivot” from his post-partisan campaign motif to a hard-boiled governing theme are hints that 44 simply lacks 42’s leadership mojo.

The official who worked in both administrations has a pet example. When the stimulus was passed in early 2009, only one member of the president’s inner sanctum — Vice President Joe Biden — was tasked with promoting it. Meanwhile, Obama was pitching health care and green jobs; economic advisers Christina Romer and Larry Summers were privately gaming out the bill’s big-picture effects; Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner was doing damage control on the bank bailout; and Office of Management and Budget Director Peter Orzsag was worried about deficit reduction.”The core to being an executive — what are the big problems — is focusing on a theme,” the official said. “Clinton was very disciplined about that,” he added, pointing out that staffers woke up each morning expecting to promote a “message of the day.”

Others in the Clinton camp seized on that crippling scourge—insufficient executive experience — to make a slightly different point; Obama needed to reassure an anxious electorate not by talking a big game, but through a series of more symbolic, piecemeal, moves. One former speechwriter (fondly) recalls Clinton’s 1996 gambit to inch into Republican territory by vouching for public school uniforms. “That was all about sending a larger meta-message that this was a president who got up every day to fight for the American people.” Obama, by contrast, “is a lot more about telling than about showing,” the speechwriter said. “He gives nice speeches, but he’s not really practiced in the doing. Part of that is because he was never a doer before he became president.”

Another former Clinton official, who wouldn’t let me identify him more specifically, argued that Obama showed his inexperience by letting Congress not only define his bills for him, but write them, too, in the cases of stimulus, health care, and climate legislation. “The result of that is it became extremely difficult to maintain a set of clear principles of what it is you are about,” he said. “Clinton had been a five-term governor. He really knew how to be an executive. And I think it took Obama a while to learn.” Rendell, no surprise, makes precisely the same point. “I think the president was hurt by being a legislator only,” he said in a June television appearance. “Too much of [stimulus and health care] was left up to the Congress. He sort of said, ‘Here’s my concept, you guys flesh it out.’ I think Hillary Clinton would have sent them a bill and said, ‘Here’s what I want.'”

This is where the Clintonites, their vision clouded by personal fealty, become less convincing. Rendell, who stumped hard for Hillary in 2008, seems to have forgotten that this very strategy failed miserably in 1993, when the Clintons pushed their health reform bill. Precisely because Obama saddled Congress with the responsibility of crafting the Affordable Care Act, it too was on the hook if it failed. (As are Senators John Kerry, Joe Lieberman, and Lindsey Graham for bungling climate change legislation.) Equally, talk of a leadership deficit ignores several of Obama’s high-profile unilateral actions: reversing Bush’s torture policies; authorizing military involvement in Libya; ordering the killing of Osama bin Laden; rescuing GM and Chrysler; and providing certain illegal immigrants relief from deportation.

But the weakness of the Clintonite gripe stems not just from papering over the Big Dog’s mistakes and minimizing Obama’s accomplishments. It also suffers from a blindness to Obama’s political obstacles and an overly credulous conviction in the president’s power to sway public opinion.

First, the economy is faring far worse today than it was sixteen years ago. In the summer of 1996, the national unemployment rate hovered around 5.5 percent; today it stands at 8.2 percent. In the modern era, only Franklin Roosevelt, who was backed by a strong New Deal coalition, has won reelection with an unemployment rate over 7.2 percent. In this context, Obama’s slim lead over Republican opponent Mitt Romney is something of a victory.

Second, Congress has blocked most of Obama’s agenda for the past two years, which has in turn exacerbated the country’s economic and fiscal crises. While Newt Gingrich’s famously intransigent 104th Congress allowed the government to shut down in 1995 and 1996, his 105th acquiesced to certain tax increases in a much-heralded 1997 budget deal that today’s House, beholden to a no-tax pledge, would deem dead on arrival. Meanwhile, Senate Republicans have kept busy playing nullifier, filibustering everything from jobs bills to low-level judicial appointments.

Finally, the Clintonites place far too much faith in the bully pulpit. After all, when Obama does choose to use it, he’s not always rewarded. From Vanity Fair’s Todd Purdum, in 2010:

Obama’s … sangfroid and equanimity in the face of the worst crises became a subject of fevered agitation among the press and some critics in his own party, who accused him of failing to exploit the ultimate power of the presidency, its bully pulpit. But the moment that Obama responded to a suggestion from the Today program’s Matt Lauer that] he needed to “kick some butt” regarding the oil spill — by allowing that he was, indeed, doing his best to figure out “whose ass to kick” — he was denounced by some of those same critics as demeaning the dignity of the presidency.

But even this anecdote obscures the larger point: what presidents say, especially in harsh economic circumstances, matters very little. As political scientists Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson argue in a recent Presidential Quarterly article, the bully pulpit helps presidents set their agenda, but does very little to determine “how citizens or legislators respond to these issues.”

Which is all to say: if Obama had been dealt a better hand, he’d be cruising to reelection, and we probably wouldn’t be dissecting his communications strategy. Granted, the Clintonite critique I’ve identified is not completely unjustified. When a health care bill is broadly unpopular but the general public is in favor of most of its individual parts, clearly something’s been lost in translation. Indeed, Obama himself admitted in July that he spent too much of his first term governing, and not enough time telling a “story to the American people that gives them a sense of unity and purpose and optimism.”

Still, I got the sense from the Clinton folks that they didn’t have a serious beef with Obama’s first-term performance. Rather, like Bubba himself, they’re backseat drivers who don’t want the newbie to wreck the car. “A lot of it is nostalgia,” says the official who worked in both White Houses. “Anyone you talk to that’s still in the immediate Clinton circle has no appreciation for the fact that not everybody is Bill Clinton.”

Simon van Zuylen-Wood

Simon van Zuylen-Wood is a writer for Philadelphia Magazine.