The Washington Post

Bill Clinton has advice, and some criticism, for President Obama in new book

President Barack Obama and former President Bill Clinton laugh together during a memorial service for Richard Holbrooke at the Kennedy Center, Friday, Jan. 14, 2011, in Washington. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

President Obama and his Democratic allies made two key political missteps in recent years, according to former president Bill Clinton in a new book to be released Tuesday.

First was not raising the federal debt ceiling in the first two years of the president’s term, when Democrats still had a majority in Congress, and then failing to devise an effective national campaign message during the midterm elections of 2010.

Clinton also suggests, obliquely, that Obama’s criticism of Wall Street has been too harsh and counterproductive.

The 42nd president periodically surfaces with cheerful tips on how he managed the economy and offers these observations in his book “Back to Work: Why We Need Smart Government for a Strong Economy.”

The Washington Post obtained a copy of the book before its publication.

The volume is dense with criticism of Republicans; it devotes substantial attention to what Clinton describes as the GOP’s relentless “antigovernment ideology,” identified as the cause of the anemic economy, high unemployment and American inability to compete on the world stage.

But the subtext of the book is that Obama has struggled, both to identify workable economic policies and to outmaneuver his Republican foes.

“The Democrats did not counter the national Republican message with one of their own,” Clinton writes of the Democratic losses in 2010. “There was no national advertising campaign to explain and defend what they had done and to compare their agenda for the next two years with the GOP proposals.” He compares it with his own congressional defeats in 1994.

The very existence of such a book by the former president — which Clinton says was inspired by the 2010 midterm losses — has produced some eye-rolling among senior Obama advisers and is certain to spur a new round of unwelcome comparisons between the 1990s and today.

Clinton mostly aligns himself with Obama on the big picture, arguing that the president did the right thing, or at least the best he could given the economy he inherited, with the stimulus package. He dismisses Republican notions, such as privatizing Medicare and Medicaid, and rebukes Republican tax cuts, contrasting the George W. Bush era with his own. “The antigovernment movement’s most cherished conviction is that we can’t raise taxes on the ‘job creators,’ ” Clinton writes. “We tried it their way for twenty of the last thirty years, and their strategy of using blanket tax cuts for high-income individuals didn’t work.”

Clinton, at times, paints a gloomy portrait of the U.S. economy : “It is heartening that people all over the world want to pursue their version of the American Dream but troubling that others are doing a better job than we are of providing it to their people,” he writes in a passage about America’s standing in the world. “I can understand the pessimism of the young,” he writes. He later adds: “We’re in a mess now.”

Clinton repeatedly attempts to turn back to a more hopeful future, with the exhortation that the country get “back in the future business,” a hallmark of his time in politics.

Where Clinton gives Obama direct policy advice, it is fairly impersonal, suggesting, for example, that the president restore the Small Business Administration as a Cabinet agency.

His more cutting criticism of Obama is implied. Clinton praises Wall Street executives, saying that many would be willing to contribute to improving the economy and cutting the deficit. “Many of them supported me when I raised their taxes in 1993, because I didn’t attack them for their success,” Clinton writes. Unspoken is that Obama has at times eviscerated Wall Street for its excesses, infuriating its leaders.

Clinton, of course, has been criticized for his administration’s role in creating the environment for the crisis to unfold, particularly the repeal of stricter banking regulations.

Specific suggestions in the book will sound familiar to followers of the Obama presidency. Clinton proposes letting homeowners with government-guaranteed mortgages refinance their loans at a lower interest rate, which the White House did two weeks ago. He encourages the passage of free-trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama, which Obama signed into law last month.

The relationship between Clinton and Obama has long been a complex one, with most public signs pointing to a polite but distant friendship. Obama has embraced Clinton’s economic expertise, inviting him to play golf this year and to discuss the economy, rehiring members of his economic team and launching a new strategy of executive actions akin to Clinton’s in the mid-1990s.

Yet the former president has occasionally upstaged the current one, as he did when he lingered in the Brady Press Briefing Room in December 2010 after Obama invited him to the White House to discuss a tax deal with Republicans. Clinton has disagreed with Obama on policy at times. But officials on both sides insist that the friction of the Democratic primary has long since dissipated, with Hillary Rodham Clinton now in the Cabinet.

If Clinton’s 2010 appearance before reporters at the White House hinted that he wished he were eligible for a third term, “Back to Work” holds evidence that Clinton is playing armchair quarterback as intensively as ever. Ever the wonk, he cites recent Government Accountability Office reports on government waste and offers charts of global rankings based on total tax revenue as a percentage of GDP. He does not, however, promise that his point of view — and thus Democrats — will prevail, closing the book by saying he does not “know how this will turn out.”

“While of course people will always try to hype even the narrowest policy disagreement between them,” said Obama economic adviser Gene Sperling, “that is small ball and overwhelmed by the benefit of having President Clinton out there as a powerful voice advocating for the American Jobs Act and the other main planks of the Obama economic agenda.”

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