Ten Miles Square

September/October 2012 The Clintonites’ Beef With Obama

It's not his policies they complain about but his messaging. Is that fair?

By Simon van Zuylen-Wood

Second, Congress has blocked most of Obama’s agenda for the past two years, which has in turn exacerbated the country’s economic and fiscal crises. While Newt Gingrich’s famously intransigent 104th Congress allowed the government to shut down in 1995 and 1996, his 105th acquiesced to certain tax increases in a much-heralded 1997 budget deal that today’s House, beholden to a no-tax pledge, would deem dead on arrival. Meanwhile, Senate Republicans have kept busy playing nullifier, filibustering everything from jobs bills to low-level judicial appointments.

Finally, the Clintonites place far too much faith in the bully pulpit. After all, when Obama does choose to use it, he’s not always rewarded. From Vanity Fair’s Todd Purdum, in 2010:

Obama’s … sangfroid and equanimity in the face of the worst crises became a subject of fevered agitation among the press and some critics in his own party, who accused him of failing to exploit the ultimate power of the presidency, its bully pulpit. But the moment that Obama responded to a suggestion from the Today program’s Matt Lauer that] he needed to “kick some butt” regarding the oil spill — by allowing that he was, indeed, doing his best to figure out “whose ass to kick” — he was denounced by some of those same critics as demeaning the dignity of the presidency.

But even this anecdote obscures the larger point: what presidents say, especially in harsh economic circumstances, matters very little. As political scientists Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson argue in a recent Presidential Quarterly article, the bully pulpit helps presidents set their agenda, but does very little to determine “how citizens or legislators respond to these issues.”

Which is all to say: if Obama had been dealt a better hand, he’d be cruising to reelection, and we probably wouldn’t be dissecting his communications strategy. Granted, the Clintonite critique I’ve identified is not completely unjustified. When a health care bill is broadly unpopular but the general public is in favor of most of its individual parts, clearly something’s been lost in translation. Indeed, Obama himself admitted in July that he spent too much of his first term governing, and not enough time telling a “story to the American people that gives them a sense of unity and purpose and optimism.”

Still, 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.”

Simon van Zuylen-Wood is a writer for Philadelphia Magazine.


  • SadOldVet on September 08, 2012 2:20 PM:

    F*ck the whole bunch of DLC/DINO/Repuke-Lite Clintistas!

    No more Clintons - No more Bushes!

  • Random Thought on September 08, 2012 8:42 PM:

    I am actually over the Clinton love affair. If anyone wants to discuss substance, we can talk about all of the substantive things that Bill did that created problems, such as DADT, welfare reform without any place for the folks kicked off of welfare to go to once benefits ran out, deregulation of the financial sector, failed attempt at healthcare reform, various trade agreements (and most favored nation status to China) that has contributed to the outsourcing of American jobs...Sure, Bill gives a mean speech...And, he left office with a budget surplus (thanks in large part to the internet bubble), but, let's not re-write history...Moreover, Ed Rendell is a partisan hack. He gives the impression that he is an "objective" political analyst, but he is a Bill & Hillary @ss kisser...I freely recognize that President Obama has made some communication mistakes (failure to create a message re the ACA and the stimulus) and I actually disagree with some of his foreign policy positions (drones anyone????) and the campaign should have used its database SOONER (like day 1) to mobilize support, but let's not re-write history such that we forget that Bill was less than perfect.

  • John Petty on September 09, 2012 9:11 AM:

    Nobody thinks Clinton was perfect, but he did generate the longest prosperity in the history of the country, and knew how to navigate politically.

    You might not remember, but DADT was considered a progressive move at the time, and welfare reform was a damn good idea and program.

  • c u n d gulag on September 09, 2012 12:00 PM:

    Yes, yes, ok, Obama sucks.

    But, dear Clintonista's (and I happen to love both Bill and Hillary), if he sucks so bad, how come he got more accomplished in his first two years, than your boy did in 8?
    Real, progressive things: like the Lily Ledbetter Act, the ACA, ending DADT (which, someone remind me, started under whom - since I sometimes forget?), finished the job W started in fixing Detroit, somehow clawed the economy back from the Bush precipice, and recently did his own persoanl DREAM Act.

    The times they were, a'changin'...

    First, Clinton was President when the Republicans first decided that the future path for them, was Nihilism. They've since perfected the art of 'trash and burn, divide and conquer, and hope you win by 1 vote).

    Second, the economy is in much, MUCH worse shape than in 92 - AND we had hundreds of thousands of troops actively engaged in occupying two sovereign nations, hoping to rebuild what 'Petulant George' and his gang of ill-mannered and angry NeoCLOWN apes, destroyed.

    Third, America's "First Black President" and his supporters don't know what the countries REAL "First Black President" has to go through.

    Barack Hussein Obama's race is the elephant in the room.
    One that changes the discussion that one could have comparing one Presidency to any other one.
    I think one of the reasons he didn't want to overuse "The Bully Pulpit," and hence underused it, is that he didn't want to be seen as another Black Preacher talking pretty.
    And in retrospect, maybe he should have, since Conservatives still say he talks pretty too much, too often, and doesn't say anything when he does - AND THAT THE FECKIN' N*GGER NEEDS A TELEPROMPTER WHEN HE DOES TALK.

    So, there are a lot of things you can fault President Obama for, but I'm not convinced using using "The Bully Pulpit" more would have helped him much.

    At heart, pretty as he talks when he wants to talk pretty, to me, Obama seems much more like a "Doer" than a talker.
    Bill Clinton did, and does, talk pretty, too. And he too, accomplished quite a bit. But talk didn't get health care, and talk wouldn't have saved the car industry, and talk didn't allow men and women to be openly gay and be in the military.
    And yet, somehow, without talking too much - or not enough - President Obama did.

    Oh, and it was President Obama, not Bush, and not Clinton, who finished off bin Laden - so wag THAT dog!