‘Compare Clinton and Obama’

Various tidbits from Ron Suskind’s new book are causing a stir in political circles, but Ben Smith flags an interesting MSNBC exchange featuring Jonathan Alter, who also wrote a book covering President Obama’s first year, commenting on the “home alone” quote.

ANCHOR: What about the claim he makes about Peter Orzag and Larry Summers saying they were “home alone” in the White House. As if the president was disengaged.

ALTER: I heard that “home alone” when I was reporting and talking to many of the same and they said they couldn’t get anybody from the Treasury Department and the key policy makers confirmed. It was three or four people trying to prevent a depression and felt like they were home alone in the book. The context of it is Obama was not up to the job and they longed for Bill Clinton. I have a whole chapter in my book where I talked to all the former Clinton people now work for Obama. I asked them all, compare Clinton and Obama.

ANCHOR: They said?

ALTER: They gave a sophisticated answer. They thought Clinton was more creative and his policy making, but they prefer to a person Obama in a crisis, which was what they were in. He was decisive and making as many decisions in a week as Bill Clinton made in a year, and making the decisions crisply. The idea that somehow all the former Clinton officials working for Obama were longing for Bill Clinton because they had this inexperienced president who didn’t know what he was doing is not what they were saying at the time. I was talking to not just a few, but pretty much all of the former Clinton people in the White House at high and mid-levels.

This is a bit of a tangent, but this — comparisons between the only two Democratic presidents of the last three decades — is a subject I always find fascinating.

For what it’s worth, I was an intern in the Clinton White House 16 years ago, and while my interactions with the then-president were almost non-existent, I had a chance to chat with plenty of folks who actually worked with Clinton. Meanwhile, I’ve never stepped foot in the Obama White House, but I know a few folks there, some of whom have Clinton-era experience.

Without getting into who’s the “better” president — if Obama is denied a second term, it will obviously change the nature of the comparison — my general impression is that Clinton and Obama have very different styles behind closed doors. They’re both whip smart and ask good questions during meetings/briefings, but that’s roughly where the similarities end.

I don’t want to pretend to be an expert on either leader, because I’m not. If this sounds like little more than scuttlebutt and second-hand accounts, that’s because it is, admittedly. But my casual conversations are largely in line with the perspective Alter shared. Clinton was more personable in meetings than Obama is, but he was also known for having an explosive temper that Obama doesn’t have. Clinton is seen as a better listener, but was also easily distracted and indecisive. Obama is apparently infinitely more disciplined and resolute than his Democratic predecessor.

Obviously, any comparison between a two-term former president with an incumbent president who doesn’t have three years under his belt is going to be incomplete, and maybe this little parlor game is of little interest to others, but given the proximity between the two Democratic administrations, the universe of officials who’ve been part of both includes quite a few people. I would expect plenty more of these “compare Clinton and Obama” questions for a long while.