Fair. Balanced. American.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

More comparisons


A few weeks after Obama’s inauguration, Clinton joined Al Gore, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid to talk about climate change at the Center for American Progress, the liberal research organization founded by his former White House chief of staff John Podesta. Moderating was Timothy Wirth, the former Colorado senator who served as an under secretary of state in Clinton’s administration. Wirth noted the recent momentum on climate change, then turned to his former president.

“Why did this take so long?” Wirth asked Clinton pointedly. Clinton looked a little peeved. “We didn’t have the votes before,” he explained.

Later in the program, Podesta returned to the subject. “I want to come back to the question you posed to President Clinton, which is what’s different than the last 35 years,” said Podesta, who most recently served as Obama’s transition chief. “And I’d say after this beginning, it’s that we have new leadership to move the issue forward.”

If the implicit comparison bothered Clinton, he did not say so. But the moment raised questions: What does Obama’s ascension mean for Clinton’s legacy? Is it the validation of the Clinton presidency or the repudiation of it? Is Obama building on the base Clinton established or tearing it down? Will Obama be the president many Democrats wished Clinton had been? Or will he be doomed to relearn the lessons Clinton did about ambitious agendas giving way to more incremental change?

In the past 140 years, only two other Democratic presidents, Harry Truman and Jimmy Carter, lived long enough to see another Democrat in the White House — and Carter’s relations with Clinton were difficult, to say the least. Clinton chooses to look at Obama as the next stage in a political movement he led. But it’s not at all clear that Obama sees it that way. During the campaign, Obama dismissed Clinton as a historical placeholder. “Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that, you know, Richard Nixon did not, and in a way that Bill Clinton did not,” Obama said then.

Of course, Obama was running against Clinton’s wife. Since winning, Obama has found more to like about the Clinton administration, particularly its personnel. His chief of staff, national economics adviser, climate czar, White House counsel, Treasury secretary, attorney general, United Nations ambassador and homeland-security secretary — not to mention his secretary of state — all served with Clinton. As of April, 42 percent of Obama’s appointees to Senate-confirmed positions were Clinton veterans.

Some of those returnees to power seem to view the Obama administration as a do-over, a chance to get right what went wrong in the 1990s. When they talk about what it is like to work for Obama, Clinton does not fare well in the comparison. That may be a function of the natural tendency to talk up the current boss, but in their praise of Obama comes the obvious contrast. They marvel at Obama’s discipline and roll their eyes as they remember Clinton’s agonizing before making decisions. They admire Obama’s cool as they recall Clinton’s “purple rages” at his staff behind closed doors. “Obama respects the process,” said an aide to both men. “Clinton always had to do the math himself.”

Rahm Emanuel, who was a senior adviser to Clinton and now is chief of staff for Obama, recently described the current White House as a far more cohesive operation than his last one. “We don’t, rather, have the kind of New Democrats versus traditionalist split that existed in that White House,” he said on CNBC. “We don’t have in this White House the president-versus-vice-president staff divisions that have been in other White Houses.” Emanuel credited “the tone and tenor that the president of the United States has set in expectations.” The next day on ABC, he suggested Obama would rank among the best American leaders, comparing him with “successful presidents and transformative presidents” like Franklin D. Roosevelt, Kennedy and Reagan. Emanuel made no mention of Clinton.

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