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The Bubba Files: Four Lessons for Obama From the Clinton Era The Bubba Files: Four Lessons for Obama From the Clinton Era

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The Bubba Files: Four Lessons for Obama From the Clinton Era


Former President Bill Clinton takes the stage with President Obama at the Clinton Global Initiative in September.

Adapted from Capital Offense: How Washington’s Wise Men Turned America’s Future over to Wall Street.

1. Yes He Can! … Be like Bill, that is.


The conventional wisdom on Obama is that he’s too cool and cerebral to feel our national pain—unlike Bill Clinton, who went through an agonizing reappraisal after the Republicans walloped him in the 1994 midterm elections. But in truth, the feel-your-pain president was just as uncertain as Obama, at least at first, about how his policies were affecting ordinary Americans. Amid heated and often unresolved debate among his chief advisers, Clinton dropped his promised middle-class tax cuts and focused on cutting the deficit. For Clinton, it was a huge gamble. He was alienating his liberal base, just as Obama has done. He also seemed peevish and defensive, just as Obama has recently. “Hey, the president is relevant here,” was Clinton’s weak plaint to a reporter in April 1995, during the height of the Newt Gingrich revolution.

But by the end of 1995, three years into his presidency, the economy began to boom. Clinton began to show a lot more confidence and do something he had been unwilling to do for most of his first term: take credit. “I remember I wrote up a statement on unemployment going down or something, and when I went into the Oval Office he said, ‘I don’t ever want you bring me something again that somebody in the worst 30 economic counties in the country would hear and think we’ve lost touch,’” his aide Gene Sperling recalled. “But by 1996 we started to take a little bit of credit. Clinton said, ‘You can finally go out and tell people.’”

Granted, Obama probably has a much tougher economic problem. But he also may be luckier in his adversaries—incoming GOP House Speaker John Boehner is more a workmanlike Denny Hastert type than a Gingrich, and rather than leading his own revolution Boehner will be forced to straddle one. So don’t be surprised if Obama regains his footing.

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