Sunday, October 3, 2010

Sunday Question for Liberals

Continuing on the theme from the question for, after almost two years of Barack Obama, how does Bill Clinton look to you now?  Does Clinton look better?  Worse?  How?  Recall that Clinton had a significantly less liberal Senate...but also took office with an already beginning economic recovery, and the US at peace.    So, have you changed any opinions about Clinton over the last two years?


  1. Looking back at Clinton, even though I was in Middle school at the time, I think Clinton's big mess up was not passing HCR. Clinton's plan was more liberal than the ACA and probably better in how it actually worked. Obama has done better in passing legislation than Clinton did.

  2. I always liked Clinton and haven't really changed my mind as a result of Obama. Obama does invite several comparisons of course.

    I was never wild about triangulation and always got more conservative actions than I would prefer. On the other hand, I expected more of a blue dog result from Clinton than I did of Obama. Clinton positioned himself as a moderate. Obama didn't really position himself as anything, but allowed a lot of people to believe he was liberal.

    I was always very impressed with Clinton's work ethic and mastery of policy and process. He was the wonk's president. Obama is the intellectual's president, but could use quite a bit more wonkishness. Clinton would never have gotten in the position Obama has in terms of filling administrative positions and various appointments.

    Obama has done well legislatively while Clinton did well as an executive. It may well be that that is a function of their pasts. Obama sees the world through a legislator's lens and Clinton came out of a Governorship.

    Let's just hope Rahm's replacement cares about executive issues. It may be that since Rahm (and Biden) came out of the legislature too that executive issues did not have a strong enough champion. It's too late for the Obama team to not make a hash out of filling the administration and judiciary, but not too late to prevent absolute disaster.

  3. In hindsight, Clinton's looking pretty good, but I had already liked him. However, after two years of Obama, I'm starting to have at least a little sympathy for the "second coming of Carter" claims coming out of conservatives. Now, I'm not blaming Obama one eensy bit for the economy, for which blame can really be distributed widely. But, I haven't seen him campaigning well nor beating the GOP in the day-to-day politics that I was hoping for. You can't just keep losing every news cycle.

  4. Another Clinton disadvantage Obama hasn't shared: Clinton had no class of young(ish), competent staff with significant recent Executive Branch experience to draw on. That said, Clinton screwed it up more than he had to by replicating Carter's time-wasting idiocy of starting out with snobbishly inexperienced non-Washington friends in lots of positions of power. It's not only the extra help he's had that's made the current President seem terribly professional by contrast.

    As to the actual question: I was nine years old when Bill Clinton became President and seventeen when George Bush did. The first events outside of my sphere of acquaintance that I remember are the 1988 Presidential election and the fall of the Berlin Wall. The Clinton years will probably always stick in my mind as a default for how things are and should be. So I have trouble thinking about conditions under Clinton as having been affected by politics, that is, by the choices people made.

    It is nice to have a President who (a) is personally disciplined and non-embarrassing and (b) isn't listening to Dick Morris and Mark Penn, though!

  5. All good comments.

    My opinion of Clinton hasn't changed. His administration gave us the best economy since the 60's, though he was hardly more liberal than Eisenhower.

    My big disappointment with the big O - and this didn't come easily, since my expectations were low - is his seamless continuation of W's war policies.

    Economically, O is to the right of Clinton and Eisenhower - smaller disappointment, since I had him pegged as a centrist conservative.

    But the political discourse in this country is so divorced from reality, that Clinton and O are both reviled as quasi-commies.

    Cheers, I guess!

  6. I think Clinton's presidency was largely successful, but I don't see how you can look at his first two years and Obama's first two years and not say that Obama has accomplished much more - and without the ugliness of Don't Ask Don't Tell or throwing liberals like Lani Guinier under the bus. I know lots of liberals are deeply disappointed that Obama hasn't been more successful on matters of concern to the Left, but happily we haven't seen the same sort of outright antagonism that was seen in 1993 and 1994. And that he's done that amid the financial crisis/wars is quite interesting.

    One thing that'll be interesting, looking forward, is that 1994 basically killed off the Democratic Party that wasn't attached to the Clintons (and Terry McAuliffe etc.). Both houses of Congress were lost for the rest of the presidency, the Speaker was defeated, George Mitchell retired, etc. So basically all things Democratic in the 1990s came to be seen as all things Clinton. If the Democrats in Congress (or at least the Senate) hold on in 2010 it'll be interesting to see what position that puts the president in and how it contrasts with the Clinton/Gingrich&Dole situation in 1995.

  7. I was in college when Reagan was prez. I watched Dukakis make a total dufus of himself. And then Bill came along. I always liked him and always will in spite of all the triangulation bs and the bj in the oval office. Lets face it, the sex stuff really was a fatal blow to his administration. As for O I just don't understand why he hasn't railed against the senate for totally screwing up his agenda. Its almost as if he doesn't care. ????

  8. The deregulation of the financial industry looms large. Much of it happened under Bill's watch. I remember the argument that bigger was going to be better for competing internationally, that smaller would doom our banking institutions on the world scene. I remember thinking that might be a bad idea, because it seemed like the safety controls from the great depression were coming off. But I trusted his administration to make good decisions.

    All things considered (Hindsight), I was wrong to trust them. It was a terrible idea and made the financial meltdown we just experienced much worse than it had to be.

    I have to bring Clinton down a notch in retrospect.

  9. Anonymous 4:57: Super-interesting point about the way 1994 affected the institutions of the Democratic party at the federal level. Maybe that's another thing I'm ignorant of because of my age (/youth). I certainly don't remember the glory (?) days of Tip O'Neill or Rostenkowski as independent power centers, or anything like that.

    Anonymous 5:57: surely he doesn't rail against the Senate because he doesn't think it'll play well with a public uninformed about and frankly uninterested in what they see as Washington insider minutiae -- and, conveniently, he's not much of a railer anyway?

    (And Jazzbumpa, presuming mine was one of the "all good comments," thanks!)

  10. My opinion of Clinton has not changed over the years (I was nearly 15 when he took office, and had graduated college by the time he left). As someone on the capital-L Left who takes issue with most Democrats for being too conservative, I view Clinton as someone who is largely of the Democratic Leadership Council wing of the party that I particularly revile. The rise of the DLC--and the Blue Dogs are a separate but related phenomenon--has severely decreased the influence of the truly progressive elements of the Democratic party (think how neutered the progressive caucus was during the health care debate, as opposed to the likes of Ben Nelson and Bart Stupak).

    So I still look at Clinton as someone who steered the party down a more conservative course, which admittedly was more electorally rewarding, at least in the executive branch. The economy was decent in the 1990s, but for the most part I don't ascribe that to Clinton's policies, and overall I look at him as a very mediocre president--with pretty severe personal failings--who prevented the GOP from doing even more terrible stuff than they would have had they controlled the White House.

    To me the real point to make with respect to your question is that, after two years of Barack Obama, he looks a lot more like Bill Clinton that I would have expected, and I find that highly disappointing. Obviously Obama was a bit of a cipher during the campaign, and I did not think I was getting Paul Wellstone or even Teddy Kennedy when I voted for him. But I expected him to govern with a lot more sympathy for the Wellstone wing of the Democratic party than he has. The idea that Obama in his first two years is as progressive of a president as we will get for the foreseeable future is quite depressing.

    What I've started to wonder of late is if it would not have been better to have Hillary Clinton win in 2008 (in spite of her hawkishness, which I abhor), an idea that I would have considered ludicrous during the primary season.

  11. The problems our country is facing now are much greater and more pressing than the problems that we were facing under Clinton. I am grateful, amongst all the nuttiness that we currently see in our political world right now (i.e., the Tea Party that supposedly resents the deficit but would lower taxes and not cut any of the major expenditures) that we have a President who is a serious, thoughtful man.

    Let's not forget that Bill Clinton devoted a substantial amount of his mental energy to engaging in a covert sexual relationship with a young, female employee. That wouldn't go over too well with me right now.

  12. Clinton... mixed, like I was in 2000, but for different reasons (a lot because I was 18 at the time).

    - Obama's difficulty with the Repubs has brought into relief how difficult Clinton had it in the 1990s and how well, relative to what it could have been, he navigated it in spite of everything. He held off dismantling a lot environmental regs and hard-right agenda items.

    - He, however, triangulated on some issues that turned out disastrously. First and foremost, financial deregulation and secondly (though not chronologically) welfare reform that left the "safety net" currently unable to absorb the increase in poverty and has been cruelly stingy in the interim.

    I have to agree with Geoff, Clinton turned the Democrats down a more conservative path. I think it seemed like a matter of survival at the time--and may have been--but has both ceded too much rhetorical and policy ground to the right to be a good representative of the people who are supposedly the base (young, women, poor, blue collar). I think Obama is almost a product of that, more than most of us supporters wanted to admit at the time.

  13. Just to quickly reply to Paul, I fully agree that President Obama is "a serious, thoughtful man." But to me that's really a minimal qualification--very minimal.

    I'm not knocking you (Paul) at all, but the fact that we even might be inclined to say "well, at least he is thoughtful" shows how impoverished and screwy our politics are. Woodrow Wilson was also quite thoughtful--and brilliant--but in general he did a poor job responding to the Depression, which is how we judge him historically. If all we can say of Obama in the end is that he was less intellectually pathetic than his predecessor--and possibly his successor--then that won't be much of a record.

  14. Geoff - I worked to elect Obama, in that I was the head of a delegation to our county convention. I used the power of my position to (fairly, under the rules I was given) stack the deck against the Clinton side in an effort to produce more Obama delegates to the State Convention and therefore more Obama delegates to the national convention.

    Even while I was doing that, I thought there was a very good chance, even likelihood, that Clinton would be a better president. I was interested in building the party though and I though it much more likely that Obama could shape the national narrative in a permanent way. I could see the possibility of Obama Republicans much as there were once Reagan Democrats. I am not sure we will see that, but the possibility put me on his side then.

    Given what a divisive figure Hillary is, I still may have been right that while she would probably be a better president, Obama is probably better in terms of a serious Democratic national majority and further success by the Democratic party (which of course you can also interpret as failure by the Republicans and chance of success for actual liberals).

    Just pause for a moment to imagine what the Tea Parties would be like if Hillary was the president.

  15. I worked in Clinton's correspondence office during the first term. Responding to Matt's point above, yes, it was very heartening to have a real fighter in the White House. He took nothing lying down and won a lot of media cycles. That said, health reform failed, and Democrats experienced the biggest midterm loss of House seats in the entire postwar period. So I'm not sure the value of all that political effort.

    In comparison to Clinton, Obama has had a rather impressive lack of scandals. I rationalized most of the Clinton scandals at the time as being minor and totally overblown by the Republicans. They were, of course, but Clinton (and his staff!) gave the GOP plenty of material to work with. Not just the sex stuff, but also Filegate, Travelgate, Whitewater, yadda yadda yadda. Obama (Rahm?) just runs a much tighter ship.

  16. To me Clinton looks worse, but it's not related to "after two years of Barack Obama." I mean if your question was how do the two Democratic presidents compare, well, it's about the same to me. Clinton's free trade jones is what has ruined this country, it's created the job deficit that has dogged Obama ... but I don't see Obama doing anything to change that. I'd like to see a real transformation of the Democratic Party but I doubt that will happen any time soon.

    Just pause for a moment to imagine what the Tea Parties would be like if Hillary was the president.

    Yes. Exactly. The main reason I thought Obama might have a glimmer of a chance over Hillary once in office.

    Remember all of the anti-Hillary books Regenery had in the hopper before the 2008 election? They so desperately wanted her to get the nomination so they could unleash their planned smears. Obama kinda came out of left field, so to speak. Put the stopper on that.

    Ah well, good times, good times.

  17. Part of the reason Wilson was ineffective during the Depression was that when it started, he had already been dead for over 5 years.

    @ Paul - I think Clinton devoted close to 0 mental energy to his trysts with Monica, who explicitly went to Washington to "do" the Prez. I was actually quite impressed with his ability to function during the whole Watergate/Monica/ Kangaroo impeachment ordeal - which started in 1994 and didn't end until 1999.

    Anyone who thinks being serious and thoughtful is a minimum qualification should think back to our most recent former prez.


  18. @ Jazzbumpa:

    Ha! Thanks for catching my ridiculous brain fart above. Obviously I meant Herbert Hoover, I simply messed up my pre-WWII presidents with alliterative names (thankfully Coolidge didn't work his way in there somehow). The embarrassing part is that I actually know a fair amount about both of these presidents, and certainly would not ever actually confuse Woodrow with Herbert. Really, I swear! Anyhow thanks for noticing that, I would not have.

  19. Lots of great comments this week!

    I'll just say that my assessment of Clinton is the same as it was -- a very good President who presided over a period of relative peace and prosperity after and preceding catastrophic Republican regimes, due mainly to his own economic and foreign policy achievements and marred by a mainstream press gone nutso along with the opposition party.

    All that, but a number of disappointments in domestic and trade policy -- the encouragement of child abuse through boot camps, DADT, NAFTA, dereg of the financial sector. A brilliant but flawed man and a brilliant but flawed Presidency.

    I think he is and has been a very, very good ex-President too, plays the part very well, and his efforts on behalf of Obama this cycle have been largely constructive.

  20. I'm no liberal, but I've been thinking lately that Clinton was the accidental beneficiary of the crazy tech bubble, the tax revenue impact of which no one seems to discuss, and which might have left our polity in a hellish, we'd-rather-lose-our-nation-than-raise-taxes situation.

    Clinton is credited for his balanced budgets, as well as the associated economic prosperity. Digression: ever heard that data point that the burst of the tech bubble destroyed $3.5 T of value? With the NASDAQ still 60% off its 2000 high, that $3.5 T is still missing. Aside from the occasional startup, and Mark Cuban, who benefited from that $3.5 T?

    Considering that the bubble was built on frenzied trading, a good portion of that $3.5 T must have been short-term profits, meaning that possibly $1 T or so of the $3.5 T went to government coffers via taxes. $1 T of extra taxes works out to more than $100 B/year in a two-term presidency. $100 B/year is peanuts in today's $1 T deficit environment, but in the 90's it was real money.

    In summary, it seems that Clinton might not have actually done anything right wrt the economy beyond being in the right place when a ton of tech stock taxes temporarily came pouring into government coffers.

    A fact not acknowledged in any circle, not on the left by the Clinton hagiographers, nor on the right by those who believe, idiotically, that the 90s 'prove' that the principles of the Laffer Curve work for all, not just high, tax rates.

    In leading to destructive resistance to taxes, might the internet be our ruin after all?

  21. Taking up what Seth said, the WH travel office "scandal" was a perfect example of something which was (1) a completely phony story about something on which the WH did AFAIK absolutely nothing at all unethical or illegal or wrong in any way, and (2) a case of a poorly run WH getting punished for being really sloppy. The story, and again as far as I know, was just that the WH press corps had institutional and, probably, personal reasons for supporting the travel office status quo -- and the Clinton WH should have known that, and either let the thing alone (as had always been the case) or, perhaps, prepare for and manage the fallout if they were going to act.

  22. @Seth
    I'm not really thinking that winning the news cycles drives the electoral results. I'm much more of "it's all the economy, and presidents really don't affect that much" guy.
    However, my concern is that Obama, by not really punching this insanity coming from the right in the nose, is giving it legs in the wrongful mandate interpretation area. When the GOP picks up seats in November, both the Blue Dogs and the GOP are going to interpret this as a mandate for the Tea Partiers. I have to wonder that if Obama had made the case forcefully that these people are absolutely insane, would that be the case? On November 3, we're going to be hearing and reading a ton about the Tea Party. I think Obama could have made it so that there'd be some sanity in those write ups. I fear there won't be any.

  23. Apropos "travelgate" and the White House Press Corps, here's one of my favorite stories:

    "Brit Hume demanded to know. No, not about the administration's flip-flops on Bosnia or the slow progress of Hillary Clinton's health-care reform plan. At a White House briefing last week, the ABC newsman wanted to know why the press had been served cold food-a mere croissant, yogurt and fruit-on a flight to New Hampshire aboard a White House charter. Where were those hot cakes and ham omelets, the kind of breakfast served on the press plane before the Clintons purged the White House travel office? Another reporter groused that even the champagne on the flight back had been cheap--domestic, presumably. White House Communications Director George Stephanopoulos bravely stuck to his story: the reporters were getting the same standard of service they always enjoyed aboard White House charters. The press wasn't buying. "Earth to George!" Hume hooted out. "
    Source: Don't Mess With The Media - Newsweek

    Not much has changed, on either side. The WHPC is still a bunch of privileged whiners, the Democratic White House communications shop is inept.

  24. >When the GOP picks up seats in November, both the Blue Dogs and the GOP are going to interpret this as a mandate for the Tea Partiers.

    Not necessarily. If they fail to take the House, that will take the wind out of their sails somewhat. They've been banking on a House takeover all year, and that's what most of the analysts are expecting to happen; failure to meet this expectation will be devastating for them, even if they come close to it in what normally would be an excellent result (say, a 35-seat pickup). Furthermore, even if they do take the House, if several of the high-profile Tea Party candidates lose (Angle, Paul, O'Donnell, Rubio, Paladino, Miller), it may make them rethink their strategy.

  25. I was in grade school during the Clinton Presidency, though both of my parents are hardcore liberals (my mother is Mayor Daley's Lawyer) and my father is a University Professor, so I don't remember too much about the Clinton Presidency to be too helpful in constructing a comparison.

    I think the Clintons did suffer for their refusal to hire anyone who worked for Carter and as a result made a bunch of bad blunders in their first years. While the Emmanuel/Rouse CoS terms give primacy to Congress in the Administration's view of legislation, it appears to be more effective than Mack McLarty, though I'm not sure quite how to parse that. So, a more experienced, more disciplined staff has helped Obama get further and get their smoother (Clinton's Supreme Court nominations came later, but were....messy, though Obama's have been in avoidance of confrontation) as well as military confrontations; both at home (various right-wing nutters) and abroad (Somalia) and the grand scale, Obama and his team seem more comfortable in the world than Clinton was--but Clinton had Powell log-rolling against him, and the failed integration of the military.

    Be that as it may, Obama's Economic Team has been a disappointment, though I'm not sure how much of that is Obama's fault, versus not quite seeing how bad the recession was, and the tendency to pre-select people who had prior experience, which tended to favor Clintonian Neo-Liberalism when modeling the country closer to Germany and further from Thatcher's England would be ideal, but really, the President can only tinker around the edges, especially with this Congress.

    Civil liberties have been especially bad, but that's an organic feature of the executive, rather than something particular to Obama.

    I think the greater effectiveness of the Obama Administration is rooted in the greater effectiveness of Obama's ability to pick and manage staff (he's benefited by absorbing the best alumni of Daschle, Gephardt, and the entire Kennedy Machine), as was in evidence as far back as the primaries (let's all reread Mark Penn's memo that CA was winner-take-all, and the various leaks and counterleaks of her staff.)

    Though Rahm may have his own courtiers and reporters, it seems to have mattered less, and the Cabinet seems more agreeable overall (though the cost of Sebelius, Salazar, and Napolitano seems greater now than at the time, with less benefit, there's been less outright incompetence and squabbling).

    I think Obama supporters expected too much of the Obama Administration on Inauguration Day, with a decade plus of liberal agenda items pent up and ready to lunge forward, without understanding the "new" Republican Party, but achieving the Stimulus, Health Care, Fin Reg, two Supreme Court Justice, a smooth Iraq draw down, and beating the Pentagon on Afghanistan is a fairly impressive list of achievements.

  26. No question Clinton looks even better after nearly two yrs of Obama. Bill took a rather aggressive approach to rectifying the economy, jobs and deficit situation at a time when there was no crisis, which suggests that had he taken office in 1993 as the bottom was falling out of the economy as it was in 2009, he wouldn't have prioritized healthcare reform, and maybe have put that off to 1996 or after re-elect when the economy had recovered and people were more in a mood to accept, say, mandatory coverage.

    Bill's FP: no major or unnecessary wars started and no colossal blunders. I can think of a couple of presidents, both from TX, who cannot have that said of them. But in dealing with our military brass, both Bill and Obama have been somewhat too deferential and defensive -- similar marks there.

    Re Bill's pseudoscandals: I give him some slack because he was the first Dem president to govern as the toxic combination of RW talk radio and cable (FNC) kicked in, joining the anti-Clinton chorus with the many Bill bashers in the MSM who seemed to never give the guy a chance to govern and who only wanted to report about the latest pseudoscandal tidbit.

    Carter had gotten a taste of this with Bert Lance, Billygate and Ham Jordan and Club 54, but nothing remotely as nonstop and vitriolic as Clinton experienced across the media board (yes, even from lefty outlets like The Nation and Pacifica Radio).

    Bill's major mistake in the pseudoscandal area pre-Monica was his decision -- agreeing with Stephanopolous but contra the advice of Hillary and a couple of other top aides -- to agree to call for an independent counsel to investigate Whitewater. Naively, he thought that when it was apparent there was no there there, it would all go away, but a few wise people in the admin knew it would also provide a legal pretext for his enemies to go on an endless fishing expedition.

    That was a blunder, as was Bill's unfortunate decision, again in the bogus scandal area, to actually answer the civil suit brought by Paula Jones, where he inevitably would find himself answering Qs under oath about his extramarital sex life. Should have just defaulted on the suit and paid the court-imposed fine.

    Bill Clinton: flawed to be sure, but because of peace and prosperity, and competence in governing and being perceived by the public as competent and moral in affairs of state -- the best president we've had since JFK.

  27. Clinton looks worse for deregulation, though that's not because of two years of Barack Obama, just two years of a recession (sorta). Wellfare reform now feels like a blunder, too.

    OTOH, he looks better for clearly handling a recovery well- not just actually bringing back jobs (that started before him), but selling it far better than Obama has.

    It was nice that he'd flash anger at his opponents every once in a while and try to win every news cycle, but I think the importance of such things are overrated. They only ever seemed to result in his own personal survival (not even extended to the whole of the Democratic Party) and the implementation of center-right policies (As opposed to just right-wing policies). Still, it's hard not to think that Obama could do that just once in a while and it would have a big effect.

    So, I guess my assessment is about the same as it was before 2008. If you're looking for an explicit comparison between Clinton and Obama, I think it all comes down to what do you prize more: effective stewardship of a relatively secure nation, or crisis management with an eye toward long-term change. Both have their values, and I'm not sure which should get more props.

  28. brodie lays out the relevant faults of WJC wrt his scandals well, and i agree with much of the positive assessment of his governing accomplishments. But it cannot be overstated how greatly his indiscretions (one in particular) affected both his party's fortunes and by effect the course of the country over the decade after he left office. The partisan environment of the time and unexcusable hijacking of the government by his opposition for the purpose of partisan pursuit of scandal (pseudo and non-pseudo alike) does not mitigate his responsibility for these scandals that so affected the course of American history. HI legacy will be the enabling of an unprepared simp to assume the Oval Office and proceed to harm the country in manifest ways, transforming politics forever. Without George W. Bush becoming president and lowering our standards, there could be no Sarah Palin or Christine O'Donnell. Clinton was a perfectly adequate steward of the government, but he was in no way so much superior to those who came before that his effect on politics after he left the stage is displaced as his greatest legacy. George W. Bush was a weak enough political figure in 2000 that dealing him a general election defeat would have ended his national political ambition. Bill Clinton's mistakes prevented this from happening. That, and the end of direct welfare as we knew it, are his primary legacy.


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