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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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White House / WHITE HOUSE

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.

photo of Michael Hirsh
November 18, 2010

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.

2. It’s Wall Street, dummy.

In Clinton’s first presidential election, a clear, singular message was enough to take out an incumbent president, George H.W. Bush: “It’s the economy, stupid.” In Clinton’s second run for the presidency the message was still about the economy but now one that was booming, and Clinton handily beat Bob Dole. Having such a clear, singular message has not been Obama’s strength so far. “Yes, we can—do everything at once” might be the motto of his first two years.

Oddly enough, Obama had a ringing message within his grasp, one that would have resonated strongly on the Right, the Left and in the Center:  All were united in anger and outrage against an overcompensated, spoiled Wall Street, a modern-day Gomorrah aided and abetted by in-the-tank regulators in Washington. Wall Street, after all, was so clearly the main culprit in the financial crash and the Great Recession. Yet Obama could never decide whether the bankers were his friends or his adversaries.  Especially after Obama distracted himself with health care, the nation seemed to sink deeper and deeper into irreconcilable partisanship. One of the few issues everyone on both sides of the political divide could actually unite on—the power of Wall Street and the too-big-to-fail problem—was lost in the political maelstrom.
Get a message, Barack—and stick to it.

3. Speak with a united voice—but encourage a diversity of opinions inside the White House.

As he assumed office in 1993, Clinton sought to avoid infighting over the economy that spilled into public during the term of his predecessor, George H.W. Bush. A member of Clinton’s inner circle recalled the candidate’s reaction to a Bob Woodward story in the Washington Post in early October of ‘92, about a month before the election. The article exposed the bitter infighting between Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady and Dick Darman, Bush’s budget director, and Michael Boskin, the chairman of his Council of Economic Advisers. “President Bush’s top economic advisers have worked for nearly four years without agreeing on an overall philosophy or plan and have been divided by personal animosity and turf fights that are fierce even by Washington standards,” the story said. They were all sitting aboard Clinton’s campaign plane when the candidate mentioned the story and said, “That’s the problem with this administration.” Clinton contrasted the Bush economic team to the smoothly running operation that Bush’s national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, was overseeing:

“They’re behind in the polls, and his economic policy guys are fighting,” Clinton said.

“But governor, the national security guys disagree with each other just as much,” someone pointed out.

“You’re missing the point,” Clinton said. “With Scowcroft, it doesn’t get out to the public.”

That was the genesis of Clinton’s idea to create a “National Economic Council” to coordinate policy and avoid the pitfalls of the Bush years.

In Larry Summers, Obama had a first-class economist and former Treasury secretary to head his own NEC, but someone who was considered intellectually arrogant and unwelcoming of other views, as well as no management maven. As a result the president’s menu of policy of options was somewhat narrow, certainly narrower than Clinton’s had been.  “Our ruling intelligentsia in economics runs the spectrum from A to A minus. These guys all talk to each other, and they all say the same thing,” one leading Washington critic said to me in 2009.    

Now, with Summers leaving, Obama has a chance to pick someone who will both encourage a variety of views and coordinate them better.

4. The president you want to be is not necessarily the president you become.

Though Bill Clinton was a New Democrat, at heart he really wanted to emulate Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He yearned to do something New Deal-sized and take the country in a new direction. He even quoted Roosevelt’s call for “bold, persistent experimentation” in his first inaugural address, though that was rhetorical overreach: January of ‘93 was nothing like March of ‘33. But Clinton quickly adjusted his ambitions.

Like Clinton, Obama also had big dreams. He wanted to restore the United States to its rightful place at the head of nations, to regain the trust of the Muslim world, and push for nuclear disarmament. Becoming the scourge of Wall Street and making the economy and jobs Job One never seemed to be a subject that kindled Obama’s passions, his critics say. Obama spoke about financial reform, but he often seemed to address it on the fly, as he was tackling other priorities, like health care, as if the economic crisis was just another item on his checklist to greatness. To be fair, Obama was also juggling two wars. But all in all, he seemed perfectly willing to leave things to his trusted lieutenants, Geithner and Summers, puzzling some Democratic allies on the Hill. “Doesn’t the president realize he’s got a big flank exposed here?” said one Democratic staffer pushing for tougher restrictions on Wall Street early in the summer of 2010.

It took far too long for Obama to realize, in other words, that the presidency he had sought when he launched his campaign in early 2007 was nothing like the presidency he wound up with. The worst economic downturn since the Great Depression hadn’t occurred just because of a simple market crash. Obama was inheriting a generation-old malady. Finance, completely unleashed, had come to dominate the real economy rather than serve its traditional role as a supplier of capital to goods and services. The banking sector had grown into a monstrosity on par with what Teddy Roosevelt confronted during the robber-baron era. Obama needed to be a Roosevelt—if not FDR, then at least trust-busting Teddy.

It’s not too late.

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