The Washington Post

Barack Obama needs Bill Clinton, even if he can’t control him

President Barack Obama and former President Bill Clinton stand together on stage at the end of a campaign event at the New Amsterdam Theatre, Monday, June 4, 2012, in New York. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster) (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

The current president is learning that there is both an upside and a downside to having a former one — particularly one with whom he has tangled in the past — as the most prominent surrogate for his reelection bid.

On the one hand, Bill Clinton brings to bear an unrivaled standing and stature in making the case that Barack Obama deserves a second term in the White House; on the other, he creates a big mess to clean up when he goes off-message.

Such has been the awkward case several times in the past week. The latest instance came on Tuesday, less than a day after he appeared at three fundraisers for Obama in New York, when Clinton argued for temporarily extending the George W. Bush-era tax cuts — even those for the wealthy — that are due to expire at the end of the year.

Obama opposes renewing the cuts for those earning more than $250,000 a year.

In the ensuing furor over Clinton’s comments in an interview on CNBC, the former president’s spokesman, Matt McKenna, issued a statement attempting to reconcile the former and current presidents’ positions. He insisted that Clinton, while opposing tax cuts for the wealthy, was merely acknowledging the political reality that no long-term deal is likely until after the election.

But Republicans gleefully — and predictably — jabbed Obama with Clinton’s comments, saying they bolstered the GOP case for extending the cuts. “Even Bill Clinton came out for it, before he was against it,” House Speaker John A. Boehner said.

Whatever Clinton’s drawbacks may be, they are greatly outweighed by his assets, Obama campaign officials insist. They argue that he is a unique political asset who can speak to both the Democratic base and the swing voters whom Obama is trying to recapture.

Though Bush has endorsed Obama’s GOP challenger, Mitt Romney, he has indicated that he will not play an active role in the presidential campaign. That is in part because Bush remains unpopular, but it also reflects his view that ex-presidents should not undermine their successors.

Clinton, who left office in 2001 with a 66 percent approval rating in the Gallup poll, has remained active in partisan politics even as he has pursued worldwide charitable endeavors.

One of the qualities that make him so compelling is the fact that he cannot be scripted.

The former president caused a stir last week when he spoke of Romney as “a man who’s been governor and had a sterling business career.” That undercut the criticism that Obama’s campaign had been making of Romney’s record in private equity.

But Clinton also argued that Romney’s résuméis not the issue and warned that his policy prescriptions would be disastrous.

“The Republican Congress and their nominee for president, Governor Romney, have adopted Europe’s economic policies,” he said on Monday in New York. “Their economic policy is austerity and unemployment now, and then a long-term budget that would explode the debt when the economy recovers so the interest rates would be so high, nobody would be able to do anything.”

That Clinton himself presided over an economic boom and a balanced budget gives him credibility to make the case against Romney and the Republicans, even when he doesn’t follow the Obama campaign’s talking points, Democrats say.

“Clinton understands what a surrogate does,” said one close friend, who agreed to discuss the former president candidly on the condition of anonymity. “His motivation is, he thinks he is being helpful to Obama, but he is not going to take instruction.”

Added another longtime Clinton adviser: “With Bill Clinton, you get a package. He’s an independent thinker.”

And while both the Obama and Clinton camps insist that the former president is absolutely dedicated to the current one’s reelection effort, theirs is a relationship that no one would call a bromance.

Indeed, it began as a clash of ambition in 2008, when Obama defeated Clinton’s wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, for the Democratic nomination.

At the time, Obama portrayed the Clintons as part of what was wrong with Washington and suggested that Bill Clinton’s presidency had not been as transformative as Ronald Reagan’s. Bill Clinton derided the then-senator’s antiwar stance as a “fairy tale” and dismissed the significance of his victory in racially fraught South Carolina.

In September that year, after he had won the Democratic nomination, Obama made a pilgrimage to Clinton’s office in Harlem. They shared sandwiches, but one associate said the visit did little to break the ice.

Since then, however, both men have appeared to move beyond that bitterness. One agent of their rapprochement has been Hillary Clinton, who has played a crucial and loyal role as Obama’s secretary of state.

Last fall, a delegation of top Obama campaign officials made another trip to Harlem, where they laid out their reelection strategy for the former president and asked him to be a part of it.

The two presidents’ bond deepened over an hour-long private dinner last month before a fundraiser at the Virginia home of former Democratic National Committee chairman Terence R. McAuliffe.

Clinton’s sense of Obama, said one friend, is that the current president “never got to believe he could learn from him until recently. . . . There is more of an openness on Obama’s part.”

The two talk occasionally, but formal coordination between Obama’s campaign and Clinton is largely done at a staff level. Chief among the events they have agreed to are the fundraisers in Virginia and New York, as well as an additional event, the details of which have not yet been announced.

Karen Tumulty is a national political correspondent for The Washington Post, where she received the 2013 Toner Prize for Excellence in Political Reporting.

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