Clintonites and Obama

With Clinton’s Big Speech for Obama on tap tomorrow night, we’re seeing a resurgence of stories about the alleged tension between 42 and 44, and their followers.

Regular readers know that I am very skeptical of the ever-popular media meme of “Clintonians” being alienated from Obama. Some of those “Clintonians” are people like Dick Morris who are actual Republicans; others are Wall Street shills with a tangential relationship at best with the Democratic Party. The administration is loaded with actual “Clintonites,” needless to say. But this meme has fed directly into the Romney campaign’s constant efforts to treat Obama as a radical (or paleoliberal) who has abandoned Clinton’s wise “centrism” and deep affection for cutting deals with Republicans.

But having said all that, there is something to the charge that many people close to the Clintons have had some trouble warming up to Obama, and it’s not all just a matter of leftover resentments from the 2008 primaries.

In the September-October issue of the Washington Monthly, TNR reporter-researcher Simon van Zuylen-Wood takes a closer look at Clintonian attitudes towards Obama, talking to several of the former president’s intimates. And he concludes the tensions, such as they are, are based on stylistic, not substantive, differences between the two chief executives:

[Ed] 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.”

But for the most part, genuine Clintonians are complaining about Obama’s communications skills precisely because they are passionately committed to his policies, or at least what his policies might accomplish if he could overcome Republican obstruction and marshal stronger public support. And like Bill and Hillary Clinton themselves, most of them are trying to lend a hand:

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.”

No question about that.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.