President Barack Obama and his Democratic allies made two key political missteps in recent years, according to former president Bill Clinton in a new book to be released Tuesday.
First was not raising the federal debt ceiling in the first two years of the president’s term, when Democrats still had a majority in Congress, and then failing to devise an effective national campaign message during the midterm elections of 2010.
Clinton also suggests, obliquely, that Obama’s criticism of Wall Street has been too harsh and counterproductive.
The 42nd president periodically surfaces with cheerful tips on how he managed the economy and offers these observations in his book entitled “Back to Work: Why We Need Smart Government for a Strong Economy.”
The volume is dense with criticism of Republicans; it devotes substantial attention to what Clinton describes as the GOP’s relentless “antigovernment ideology,” which he identifies as the cause of the anemic economy, high unemployment and American inability to compete on the world stage.
But the subtext of the book is that Obama has struggled, both to identify workable economic policies and to outmaneuver his Republican foes.
“The Democrats did not counter the national Republican message with one of their own,” Clinton writes of the Democratic losses in 2010. “There was no national advertising campaign to explain and defend what they had done and to compare their agenda for the next two years with the GOP proposals.” He compares it with his own congressional defeats in 1994.
The very existence of such a book by the former president — which Clinton says was inspired by the 2010 midterm losses — has produced some eye-rolling among senior Obama advisers, and is certain to spur a new round of unwelcome comparisons between the 1990s and today.
Clinton mostly aligns himself with Obama on the big picture, arguing that the president did the right thing, or at least the best he could given the economy he inherited, with the stimulus package. He dismisses Republican notions, such as privatizing Medicare and Medicaid, and offers a blistering rebuke of Republican tax cuts, contrasting the George W. Bush era with his own. “The antigovernment movement’s most cherished conviction is that we can’t raise taxes on the ‘job creators,’ ” Clinton writes. “The biggest problem with their argument is that we tried it their way for twenty of the last thirty years, and their strategy of using blanket tax cuts for high-income individuals didn’t work.”
Clinton, at times, paints a gloomy portrait of the U.S. economy : “It is heartening that people all over the world want to pursue their version of the American Dream but troubling that others are doing a better job than we are of providing it to their people,” he writes in a passage about America’s standing in the world. “I can understand the pessimism of the young,” he writes. He later adds: “We’re in a mess now.”
Clinton repeatedly attempts to turn back to a more hopeful future, with the exhortation that the country get “back in the future business,” a hallmark of his time in politics.
Where Clinton gives Obama direct policy advice, it is fairly impersonal, suggesting, for example, that the president restore the Small Business Administration as a Cabinet agency.
His more cutting criticism of Obama is implied. Clinton offers praise for Wall Street executives, saying that many of them would be willing to contribute to improving the economy and cutting the deficit. “Many of them supported me when I raised their taxes in 1993, because I didn’t attack them for their success,” Clinton writes. Unspoken is that Obama has at times eviscerated Wall Street for its excesses, infuriating its leaders.
Specific suggestions in the book will sound familiar to followers of the Obama presidency. Clinton proposes letting homeowners with government-guaranteed mortgages refinance their loans at a lower interest rate, which the White House did two weeks ago. He encourages the passage of free trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama, which Obama signed into law last month.
The relationship between Clinton and Obama has long been a complex one, with most public signs pointing to a polite but distant friendship. Obama has embraced Clinton’s economic expertise, inviting him to play golf this year and to discuss the economy, rehiring members of his economic team and, most recently, launching a new strategy of executive actions akin to the ones Clinton rolled out in the mid-1990s.