Bill Clinton’s gaffes, and President Obama’s reliance


Former president Bill Clinton has been speaking at campaign events and interviews in support of President Obama, yet he has made a couple political gaffes in the course of it. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

The back-pedal is back.

After two gaffes over the past couple of weeks — three if you count the remark that the economy is still in a recession — former president and high-profile Obama surrogate Bill Clinton apologized to the president for comments he made about extending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy. “I'm very sorry about what happened yesterday," Clinton said in a CNN interview Thursday, explaining that he thought action on the tax cuts had to be taken before the election. The other “d’oh” moment (when Clinton said Romney had a “sterling business career”) also surely helped to usher in tense tete-a-tetes between the Clinton and Obama camps about how to explain the remarks.

Clinton’s comments follow those by Newark Mayor Cory Booker and Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, both of whom made positive statements about private equity or Bain Capital at the very moment the Obama campaign was criticizing it, and then tried to diffuse the response.

By November, all of these comments will probably be long forgotten. And to a certain extent, surrogates who think for themselves every once in a while rather than toeing the party line in robotic submission can look more plausible. As former Clinton adviser and PR maven Mark Penn said of Clinton: “If he steps out and disagrees with Obama now and then … and is telling you what he really thinks, that makes Bill Clinton a more credible surrogate.”

Maybe so. But they also illustrate the danger of leaders relying too much on so-called surrogates to spread their message. In a 24/7 news world, leaders and the people who work for them can’t be everywhere all the time. It’s critical to turn to people who can help get your message out and — most critically — show high-powered support during difficult moments (as the last week has been for President Obama).

However, it’s worth remembering that those who take on the job of surrogate often have a reason for doing so. They may be looking to curry favor with the leader they’re praising, draw national attention to themselves, or stay in the game after a long and illustrious career. That doesn’t mean they’re looking for a way to slip up or go rogue — these tend to be honest mistakes or misinterpretations — but enjoying the spotlight and relishing the attention can create its own risks.

That’s especially true for someone like Clinton, who can have a rambling, stream-of-consciousness speaking style and the confidence of a former president unafraid to speak his mind. He was willing to apologize for his comments, but was also careful to keep a certain distance. (“Mr. Simon may think I should be an employee of the campaign but I’m not,” Clinton said in an interview with Brian Williams, referring to a column by Politico’s Roger Simon.)

Obama needs people to speak on his behalf and won’t run a successful campaign without them. But inevitably they will slip up. No matter how tight the communication control may be, it is human nature to fumble the message every once in a while when the cameras start rolling. When that happens, my advice to the Obama camp is this: Move on. Don’t rely on them too much, and don’t make too much of their gaffes. They’ll be forgotten before long. What voters remember the most isn’t what is said by others, but what leaders actually do.

More from On Leadership:

Why you can’t get a job (even though you’re qualified)

Rocky times for D.C. leadership

Romney names head of transition team


View Photo Gallery: Highlights from the commencement addresses given by politicians, celebrities and other notables this year.

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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