By Dana Milbank
Thursday, July 15, 2010; A02
Michelle Obama visited the Florida Panhandle this week to urge Americans to vacation on the oil-threatened Gulf Coast. "This is a time to remind America that some of the best beaches in the world are here, and this is probably the best time for people to bring their kids down," she said.
Their kids, but not her kids. At the time the first lady made that plea, she and her husband had already made plans -- not yet announced -- to take their August vacation someplace far from the disaster area: on Martha's Vineyard, the playground of Bill Clinton during his presidency.
This has become the MO of the Obama administration: Say one thing, but do the Clinton thing.
This week alone, President Obama has taken several steps to implement Bill Clinton's third term. On Tuesday, Obama named Jack Lew, Clinton's budget director, to be his own budget director -- joining an administration led by Rahm Emanuel, Larry Summers and dozens of other former Clinton aides.
Later Tuesday, Obama unveiled his HIV/AIDS strategy at the White House with his global AIDS coordinator, Clinton administration veteran Eric Goosby. And on Capitol Hill, the Senate Judiciary Committee set a date for a vote next week on Obama's Supreme Court nominee -- former Clinton official Elena Kagan.
On Wednesday, representing the Obama administration on Capitol Hill at a hearing about Afghanistan was Richard Holbrooke, a prominent Clinton adviser. Obama, over at the White House, had an afternoon full of Clintons: a sit-down in the Oval Office at 5 p.m. with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, preceded by a meeting in the Roosevelt Room with Bill Clinton himself on "new ways to create jobs."
As Hillary Clinton liked to taunt Obama during their presidential primary fight: That's not change. That's more of the same.
The various signs of a Clinton restoration, particularly the return to the White House by the 42nd president, invited an unwelcome story line about Obama: that the young president, struggling in the polls and bedeviled by a worse-than-expected economy, had decided to bring back the grown-ups.
"Why is the administration turning to Bill Clinton?" White House press secretary Robert Gibbs was asked at a briefing. "Is that a reflection of the fact that he's seen as having better relations with business and more moderate economic policies?"
"No, no," Gibbs protested.
Good luck convincing the world of that. "Obama enlists Bill Clinton's aid on economy," proclaimed the Reuters headline. "White House taps Bill Clinton to help ease business concerns," judged the Los Angeles Times. "Obama looks to Bill Clinton for help on jobs," contributed the Daily Caller.
Obama, for all his words about bringing a new beginning to Washington, has from the beginning staffed his administration with Clintonistas: Eric Holder, Leon Panetta, Carol Browner, George Mitchell, Greg Craig, Jim Steinberg, Lanny Breuer, Tom Donilon, Gene Sperling, Bill Lynn, Ron Klain, and scores more in the State, Justice and Defense departments and elsewhere in the executive branch.
Now that the economy has failed to revive -- the Federal Reserve announced Wednesday that it had scaled back its forecast for growth this year -- Obama has doubled down on his Clinton instincts, bringing in Lew and soliciting the help of the former president himself. For liberals, that's exactly the wrong conclusion; they think it was the caution of Summers, who feared a larger economic stimulus package, that prevented a stronger recovery.
But Obama seems to be even more worried by his critics in the corporate world, who on Wednesday accused him and congressional leaders of a "general attack on our free enterprise system." The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, in a statement verging on the hysterical, said the "free enterprise system is truly at risk."
In the briefing room, Gibbs insisted it was pure coincidence that Obama had added a last-minute meeting with Clinton (and held a separate meeting with Warren Buffett) just as the nation's business leaders were accusing him of ruining America. Reporters, pointing out that Clinton is also scheduled to campaign for Democrats this fall, asked whether the former president has "become a key lifeline for the administration."
Gibbs would say only that "it would be crazy" not to have Clinton on the campaign trail.
Was he being brought in as a "mediator" to handle the corporate critics?
Gibbs sounded a defensive note as he said the Chamber of Commerce also opposed Democrats "in 1998, in 1996, in 1994 and 1992, when Bill Clinton was there."
The spokesman also identified a limit to Obama's infatuation with all things Clinton: The president would not be attending Chelsea Clinton's wedding, set for July 31 in New York's Hudson Valley. "Not that I'm aware of," Gibbs said when asked.
Oh? After Gibbs's briefing, a report in the Hudson Valley News began to ricochet across the Web: "Obama and Oprah expected to be at Clinton Wedding."