Better Listen to Bill

By Alter, Jonathan | Newsweek, October 4, 2010 | Go to article overview

Better Listen to Bill


Alter, Jonathan, Newsweek


Byline: Jonathan Alter

Clinton's good on green jobs.

Shortly after the 2008 election, President-elect Obama told close aides he wanted them to "think big." Rahm Emanuel, soon to be chief of staff, argued, "You never want a serious crisis to go to waste." In early 2009, Obama took a not-so-veiled shot at Bill Clinton when he snapped (privately), "We weren't sent here to do school uniforms." For a year and a half, contrary to the perception of many whiny liberals, Obama delivered. He brought more change than any president since Lyndon Johnson in 1965. Oh, and he prevented the economy from going over a cliff.

But in mid-2010, Obama suddenly stopped thinking big. He never came up with an "Apollo project" on energy and left the bill to die in the Senate. The president listened to critics who said Americans cared less about green jobs than green eyeshades (as accountants were once known) cutting government spending, as if the incoherent Republicans--do they want deficit reduction or tax cuts?--had already won the argument. Now Bill Clinton is pointing out that Obama needs both shades of green--innovative, business-friendly energy policy and evidence of fiscal responsibility.

Despite the smiles at last week's Clinton Global Initiative, the two presidents have never clicked. Where Obama and Hillary Clinton genuinely buried the hatchet, the president has always been wary of Bill. You can see why. Clinton is shouting that the president needs to up his political game. "I may be one of the few people who think it's not bad that the lady said she was tired of defending him. He needs to hear it," Clinton told Politico after an African-American businesswoman gave Obama an earful on CNBC. Clinton was right. Obama needs to work harder to connect with moderates, even if their impatience is premature.

It's not that Obama "took his eye off the ball" by pursuing health-care reform. After the $787 billion Recovery Act, there was little else he could do on the economy in 2009. The problem was this year, when he missed the Great Pivot to jobs. Yes, the BP oil spill got in the way; he was hammered all spring and summer when he tried to talk about anything else. But now Obama's caught up defending what he accomplished instead of outlining a plan for the future, which is where elections are always fought. …

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