by Kenneth T. Walsh

The former president may have upstaged Obama but their relationship could be beneficial

It was a moment of unexpected but fascinating political theater. President Barack Obama was hosting former President Bill Clinton in the Oval Office when the two men decided they wanted to chat with the media. They asked a White House aide if there were any reporters around, and were told that the correspondents were in the press area and could assemble in the briefing room within five minutes. Word went out, and the current and former president held a remarkable joint news conference that provided many insights into their similarities and differences as leaders and policymakers.

Each of them endorsed the economic "framework" agreement that Obama has negotiated with congressional Republicans despite Democratic qualms about certain provisions, such as extending tax breaks to the rich. But it was Clinton who seemed to make the most persuasive argument for the pact. "The agreement taken as a whole is, I believe, the best bipartisan agreement we can reach to help the largest number of Americans," Clinton said, "and to maximize the chances that the economic recovery will accelerate and create more jobs, and to minimize the chances that it will slip back."

As usual, Clinton was the most gregarious and loquacious person in the room. He chattered happily while Obama waited at his side, also volunteering a statement of support for the New START arms-control pact with Russia. When Obama excused himself and left for another appointment, Clinton stayed behind and proceeded to give a tour d'horizon that included an analysis of the importance of community banks, especially for small businesses seeking loans, and an argument for thwarting efforts to repeal Obama's healthcarelaw. And he urged a "ferocious fight to avoid repeal of the student loan reform" program that is designed to help young people go to college. Many reporters and Washington analysts thought Clinton had upstaged his host.

The joint appearance set off a fresh round of comparisons of Obama and Clinton, as Washington's cognoscenti speculated about which one demonstrated better leadership qualities. It also fed a certain nostalgia for Clinton among Democrats who remember his presidency as a time of economic prosperity (despite his impeachment in the Monica Lewinsky sex-and-lies scandal).

There are certainly similarities in Obama's situation today and what Clinton faced at a similar point in 1994. Both seemed captured by Washington insiders--and this alienated many middle-class voters--and both suffered serious losses in their midterm elections, giving opposition Republicans enhanced power and renewed confidence.

Clinton changed course and began to "triangulate," lifting ideas from Democrats and Republicans and coming up with a "third way" to do business in the political center. It worked, and he won re-election in 1996. Now, Obama's economic deal with the Republicans seems to represent the start of his own shift toward the middle.

But the similarities only go so far. Clinton had been governor of Arkansas, a relatively conservative state, and he had earned a reputation as a moderate. He strayed from his roots for his first two years in the White House but then returned to the center, which is where the voters wanted him to be as a counterbalance to Republicans in Congress. Obama, by contrast, rode to power as a liberal U.S. senator from Illinois. So his current move to the center, if it continues, will probably continue to outrage the liberals and perplex swing voters who aren't sure what he stands for.

And as Clinton pointed out, the economy wasn't in a total meltdown when he was in office, while Obama faced a potential catastrophe from the day he was sworn in. So the economic challenge is more severe today.

Another difference is that Clinton has a natural way of connecting with everyday people, while Obama doesn't. It was in Clinton's nature to reach out to both friends and adversaries, while Obama is more reserved and self-contained.

White House strategists acknowledge that the two men have different styles and approaches to leadership but that Clinton and Obama share a character trait that is very important: a willingness to listen to advice. Obama is expected to hold regular conversations with Clinton well into the future, even if he risks getting upstaged once in a while.

 

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