Sunday, January 06, 2008

Obama Praises Bill Clinton, and Buries Him

Barack Obama may have hit the gamer in the nomination battle in last night's ABC debate. Hillary was working all night to make the case that she was the real "change" agent because she has gotten change done in the past. By contrast, she suggested that Obama's promise of change is mainly talk. When she cited Bill Clinton's balancing the budget as a major accomplishment of 'change', Obama delivered this multi-tiered response:
Look, I think it's easier to be cynical and just say, "You know what, it can't be done because Washington's designed to resist change." But in fact there have been periods of time in our history where a president inspired the American people to do better, and I think we're in one of those moments right now. I think the American people are hungry for something different and can be mobilized around big changes -- not incremental changes, not small changes.

I actually give Bill Clinton enormous credit for having balanced those budgets during those years. It did take political courage for him to do that. But we never built the majority and coalesced the American people around being able to get the other stuff done.

And, you know, so the truth is actually words do inspire. Words do help people get involved. Words do help members of Congress get into power so that they can be part of a coalition to deliver health care reform, to deliver a bold energy policy. Don't discount that power, because when the American people are determined that something is going to happen, then it happens. And if they are disaffected and cynical and fearful and told that it can't be done, then it doesn't. I'm running for president because I want to tell them, yes, we can. And that's why I think they're responding in such large numbers.
As with many of Obama's best formulations, this seemed simultaneously to rise to the moment and be the fruit of long reflection. He exactly captured the strength and the weakness of the Clinton presidency in an assessment that is generous, fair, but dead-on accurate as a critique. Bill Clinton outmaneuvered the Republicans year after year on budget essentials but he never built the coalition (generous of Obama to say "we never built...) to reform health care, or revamp energy policy, or build any other major policy bridge to the 21st century. Hillary would say that's because the vast right-wing conspiracy sabotaged them at every turn. But Bill kept handing them swords to gore him, so he never built the trust that underlies a mandate. So Obama manages to bury Clinton and to praise him. "I give him enormous credit" but....

On top of this, Obama has here the perfect response to the "he's just talk" line of attack. Politics is almost literally all talk. You've got to be good in the cloak room, at the negotiating table, on the debate floor. What gives a politician the ultimate strength to push through change, though, is to convince the mass of voters to support his or her effort for something major like health care reform. "Don't discount that power, because when the American people are determined that something is going to happen, then it happens." That says it all. That's a real political philosophy at its deepest.

Also, note the organic riff on "the fierce urgency of now": But in fact there have been periods of time in our history where a president inspired the American people to do better, and I think we're in one of those moments right now. Obama's slogans are the fruit of long reflection. They don't become fixed like a smile for the camera; they weave themselves into his language and ripen over time. He manages to shake off that broken record effect that encrusts almost every campaign.


  1. Absolutely spot on.

    Wonderful Post.

  2. What an excellent analysis, xpostfactoid. Nice catch too of Obama's use of "we never built" as opposed to what a less thoughtful politician might have said.

  3. Thanks for this. Excellent point about how he doesn't sound like a broken record!

    Obama's talent as a writer is unprecedented in the presidential candidates I've watched over the past two decades, and it's a very big deal. He's got a great ear, and it's what is making those speeches so memorable.

  4. Wonderful post. It reminded me of a quote I heard recently, I don't remember who it was. To paraphrase:

    "Politics is the art of getting morons to do the right thing."

  5. Quite agree & moreover: playing into the "there are times in our history" remark in the debate, who could have missed Sunday's Lincoln-esque, "I know how hard this will be," repeated, in Exeter?

    How inexperienced, like Lincoln. But who does not see him, standing there, to shake his head in sorrow with Mrs Clinton's urging of pessimism in favour of her desperate claim of entitlement, and sustain his message of uncorrupted resolution with the confession, "I know how hard this will be."

    There are times in our history in those words.

  6. I agree. This is really the essence of the Clinton's limitations. We need inspiration to move past the Reagan era and into something new. That will take a realignment. I think Democratic voters feel, in their guts, that the Clinton's cannot achieve that.

  7. Wow,
    A veritable love fest for Obama going on here.

    It's amazing that Bill Clinton is now getting blamed for "not building a coalition" - may be thats why he got elected twice. And who knew Newt Gingrich would be such a great guy to deal with - bi partisanship was the rule of the day was'nt it ?

    Does Bill Clinton get any credit for attempting welfare reform ? Or does he get bashed for appointing that liberal justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to the SCOTUS ? Hmm.. Maybe he should have appointed some one who the conservatives would have loved.

    This is getting tiresome - i hope that the primaries are over and Obama wins - it may stop the Clinton bashing.

    The Republicans must be laughing all the way to the bank - the Obama campaign seems to be doing so much bashing of the Clintons than any Republican could have ever imagined!

    Thank God these primaries will be over by Feb 5 for the most part.

  8. Great post... wonderful deconstruction.

    The clip is here:

  9. Nagarajan, I half agree with you. I am a big admirer of Bill Clinton, who I believe deserves enormous credit for achieving deficit reduction, welfare reduction, and crime reduction while holding the line against cruel Republican cuts in social welfare spending and therefore also achieving poverty reduction. But I think Obama is also right. To extend his implied criticism, Clinton empowered his enemies and so limited both his achievements and his legacy. As Biden said, that's not Hillary's fault but it's her burden. She might yet be a great president - and overcome her lack of obvious charisma by dint of sheer hard work and winning the respect of her adversaries. But she has to get there first, and the percentage of Americans who say they would never vote for her really scares me.

  10. Obama's lips are purple and so are his politics. He's what we need. Nice post.

  11. Okay, Nagarajan, here's another way to look at it: Clinton did nothing to help strengthen the Democratic Party. In fact, he ran against it, in just about precisely the way that you're accusing Obama of running against the Clintons. 'Triangulation' saved his presidency, but did absolutely nothing for anything wider.

    I am an admirer of President Clinton, but the truth is that his achievements were largely personal triumphs that did little for the party, or for progressive politics. And I am truly, deeply offended by the implication -- offered here by you and repeated by many other Clinton backers -- that opposition to Hillary somehow represents a betrayal of the Democratic Party, or liberal politics.

  12. Here's too the end of entitlement.


  13. I caught your "Politics is almost literally all talk..." bit through a tag from Robert Sharp. Your approach is spot on.

    My lecturer once wrote:
    "Politicians are just rich members of 'the chattering classes'. When you can stop people chattering and invoke belief and trust, then you can call yourself a leader..."

  14. Please don't give Clinton credit for welfare reduction. That was a cynical betrayal of poor women for personal gain that he deserves to roast for.

    Interested? Check out this now ancient report.

  15. Am I the only one noticing the "yes, we can" phrase in this nugget of wisdom? Assuming that he was speaking extemporaneously, is this the moment when he coins this? I know he rolled it out in his post-NH speech, but maybe his campaign also looked at the quote above and took its most catchy part.