Bill Clinton is like the boy in the classroom who always has his hand up, waving it urgently with the answer. He’ll give it to you whether you call on him or not. His latest answer is on the economy; he is releasing a new book, “Back to Work,” on Tuesday.
Critics are already focusing on Clinton’s minor criticisms of President Obama and the repeated propensity of the ex-president to insert himself in the political drama, upstaging other actors, which is a more legitimate point.
Early reads of the book say that Clinton wonders why Obama didn’t get the debt ceiling fight out of the way when he controlled Congress, he bemoans the lack of credit Obama receives for programs that have actually helped people on things such as mortgage relief and student loans, and he offers around 25 programmatic prescriptions to put America back to work.
My guess is that all of his ideas are interesting and that they all poll extremely well. As president, Clinton was a master at consolidating a bunch of smaller ideas into a larger narrative of responsibility and opportunity.
It seems Clinton has been bursting with frustration at Obama’s inability to help define the future for Americans. This book is him saying, “I’ll do it myself.” Like Marlon Brando in the opening sequence of the first Godfather movie where he listens with increasing exasperation to his godson, the singer Johnny Fontaine, whine about his career being unfairly derailed by the entertainment mob, Bill Clinton has had enough. “What can I do, Godfather,” Johnny wails. Finally, the godfather, who thinks his godson is weak and has squandered his talents, leaps from his chair and slaps Johnny. “I’ll tell you what you can do. You can act like a man.”
So Bill Clinton is the Democrats’ Godfather, a reminder of powerful success that looms over Obama and can’t help but make him look smaller. But, as usual, Clinton has identified the problem, hasn’t he? Obama has been woefully inarticulate about leading Americans through a rhetorical journey that helps them grasp why we are in this mess and offers a plan to get out of it.
No one understands this failure. How can the same president who gave us the autobiography, Dreams from My Father, and his speech on race and after his Iowa primary night victory — all examples of rhetoric that educates and inspires — have never given a clear, compelling narrative about the state of the American economy and the way forward? (This year’s State of the Union Address is the closest he’s come, and he basically dropped its promising themes.) He’s had repeated chances; the debt ceiling debacle being the most obvious.
It is understandable that the president might believe that great rhetoric is no match for bad luck and poor results and is no sword with which to slay the Republicans’ gleeful intransigence. He has a right to whine about all that. But do it in private. Take a page from Nixon and talk to former presidents’ portraits. In public, it’s time to follow the Godfather’s advice and act like a man.