Mr. Obama and the Clintons

Sen. Hillary Clinton and former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner address delegates on the second night of the Democratic National Convention in Denver.
Wednesday, August 27, 2008

NO DOUBT, when Sen. Barack Obama pictured the ideal nominating convention, he did not cast his wife and himself as bookends for Hillary and Bill Clinton. But that, at least from a scheduling perspective, is how things have turned out. Despite Mrs. Clinton's stirring appeal for Democratic unity last night, which the former president is likely to echo tonight, the focus on them and the persistent questions about party divisions are, if nothing else, a distraction from the story Mr. Obama would like to be presenting.

Nonetheless, the media focus on the continuing Clinton drama may distort reality in a couple of ways, overstating the political significance of any party rift -- and obscuring the potential value of the Clinton legacy to an Obama campaign and presidency. As to the former, most Democrats probably will agree by Election Day with Mrs. Clinton's argument that electing one of their own matters far more than nursing any bruises remaining from the primary campaign. Republican candidate John McCain's professed admiration for Supreme Court justices John G. Roberts Jr. and Samuel A. Alito Jr. alone is likely to be enough to bring most Clinton voters around.

As to the value of the legacy, the calculation is admittedly more complex. Bill Clinton's performance during the primary campaign, and the prospect of more during the next four years, probably explains more than any other factor why Mr. Obama did not even consider putting Hillary Clinton on his ticket. But Mr. Clinton is the only Democratic president to serve two full terms in the past 64 years, and his accomplishments could point a President Obama in some useful directions.

We're thinking here, as a prime example, of Mr. Clinton's understanding that America's future prosperity depends on a deepening economic and commercial engagement with the world. As president, Mr. Clinton communicated an understanding of the stresses globalization was placing on U.S. workers. But he insisted, and had fair success in bringing the country along with him, that the answer was not to turn inward but to improve education, expand research and in other ways enhance America's ability to compete.

Neither Mr. Obama nor Hillary Clinton embraced that theme this year, and without question, the economic challenges the next president faces will differ from those that greeted Mr. Clinton in 1993. Wages have stagnated and inequality has worsened under President Bush; China's economy has continued its extraordinary growth; rising commodity prices and falling home values have stoked anxiety. Any comprehensive response to global challenges will have to include reform of pensions and health care as well as schools and worker training.

But to respond to today's anxiety by regressing on open trade and investment would guarantee more stagnation for American workers and continued poverty for hundreds of millions overseas. Mr. Clinton sought and often managed to convince Americans that the global economy was an opportunity and not a threat. Whatever his legacy from this campaign, that legacy of his presidency should be built upon.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company