September 3, 2012


LET'S BE FRIENDS : Two Presidents find a mutual advantage. (RYAN LIZZA, 9/02/12, The New Yorker)

[A[ turning point came after the 2010 midterm elections. Obama had promised, during his campaign, to build a politics of consensus rather than of partisan conflict, but that approach wasn't working against an increasingly right-wing Republican Party set on his defeat. Pollsters deemed Obama the most polarizing President in history, and he was rejected in 2010, much as Clinton had been in 1994. Meanwhile, the approval ratings for Clinton, who was focussed on international projects, had soared. The balance of power in the relationship began to shift as the Administration saw that enlisting Clinton might solve more than one problem.

In December, Obama negotiated a compromise tax deal with Republicans--a two-year extension of all the Bush-era tax cuts in return for some economic stimulus--that many House Democrats deplored. Liberals complained about the deal, much as Obama had criticized Clinton before 2008. What had happened to boldness? On December 10th, Clinton met alone with Obama in the Oval Office for seventy minutes, one of their longest sessions to date. Afterward, they sauntered into the briefing room, surprising reporters. Clinton gave a forceful defense of the tax deal, which helped quell the liberal uprising.

By early 2011, the White House was turning its attention to reƫlection. Jim Messina, the deputy chief of staff, moved to Chicago to manage the campaign, and he took charge of the Clinton account. Messina hadn't worked for Obama during the Democratic primaries in 2008 and had no interest in the old conflicts. "Jim Messina just cares about getting two hundred and seventy electoral votes--period," the knowledgeable Democrat said. "And he knows Bill Clinton helps him along that path. He doesn't care what he said in South Carolina in 2008."

Clinton, Messina told me, is one of the few people who can make the case for Obama among voters who still haven't made up their minds. "They're looking at this through an economic framework, and he's going to be incredibly important to that discussion," Messina said. "He's now effective with almost every demographic. I mean, he's in the sixties now"--meaning that more than sixty per cent of Americans view him favorably. "The current two political figures in America who have those numbers are Bill Clinton and Michelle Obama."

In November, not long after the round of golf, Messina and Axelrod made a pilgrimage to Clinton's Harlem office. Messina brought a PowerPoint slide show and briefed the former President on campaign strategy. At the time, the Obama team was alternating between two arguments about Romney. One presented him as an inveterate flip-flopper, the other as a right-wing ideologue who would return the country to a pre-New Deal dystopia. Clinton advised them to stick with the second argument. It would help with fund-raising, he said; liberal donors would be more motivated to fight a fierce conservative. If they defined Romney as a flip-flopper, undecided voters might think that he could return to his moderate roots once he was in office. "They tried to do this to me, the flip-flopper thing," Clinton said, according to someone in the room. "It just doesn't work." He told the Obama aides that voters never held the flip-flopper attacks against him because they felt that he would simply do what was right.

After Clinton agreed to appear at several fund-raisers, Obama turned him into a leading character in his stump speech. "All we're asking is that we go back to the same tax rates that we paid under Bill Clinton," Obama said in Boone, Iowa, recently, using a line that he repeats in most campaign speeches these days. "And you know what? That was a time when our economy created nearly twenty-three million new jobs, the biggest budget surplus in history, and millionaires did pretty good, too."

Obama had found a way to capitalize on an unusual political development. In an effort to sell deficit reduction, many Republicans have been extolling the former President's legacy. Even Mitt Romney has presented Clinton as a responsible centrist and a champion of welfare reform, unlike Obama. "Almost a generation ago, Bill Clinton announced that the era of big government was over," Romney said earlier this year, trying to magnify divisions between the two Presidents. "President Obama tucked away the Clinton doctrine in his large drawer of discarded ideas, along with transparency and bipartisanship. It's enough to make you wonder if maybe it was a personal beef with the Clintons, but really it runs much deeper."

It's hard to overstate how inconsequential our presidential elections have become.

Posted by at September 3, 2012 7:18 AM

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