Bill Clinton feels Barack Obama's pain.
"President Obama has had a tough hand to play," the former president writes in "Back to Work," his passionate little book about, well, mostly about what Bill Clinton would do if he were in the White House today.
And Clinton means it. He acknowledges that Obama is wrestling with a much deeper economic crisis than anything he faced in the early 1990s. He blames most of our problems on George W. Bush and other Republicans for passing tax cuts that ballooned the federal deficit and for failing to regulate financial derivatives (he admits he could have done more of that himself). And many of the 46 ideas Clinton offers for reviving the economy duplicate proposals Obama has made at one time or another — a payroll tax cut, an infrastructure bank, help for underwater homeowners.
"The book lavishly praises the administration's economic policy, its energy policy, its whole thing," Clinton insisted on the "Today" show Tuesday.
Yes, but. Clinton's book doesn't argue that Obama is wrong on substance; quite the contrary. But its unmistakable subtext is that Obama, unlike Clinton, has failed to make Democratic policies palatable to voters, and as a result, many of them are migrating to the Republican alternative.
"I do think the president has done a better job than he's gotten credit for," Clinton said on MSNBC. "But Americans hire presidents to win for them." Ouch!
Former presidents don't normally offer political advice to their successors in books; traditionally, they do it in private. Obama has sought Clinton's advice on several occasions, but it sounds as if the former president isn't sure the current one was listening.
Besides, Clinton says he was so upset by the Democrats' failure to present a persuasive message in the 2010 congressional elections that he needed to put his ideas on paper — to help them avoid a repeat debacle in 2012.
In 2010, "the Republicans ran a more effective, more aggressive campaign," Clinton writes. "Even though President Obama and Congress did several significant, positive things in 2009 and 2010, the beneficiaries of these changes didn't yet feel them, and often didn't even know about them."
Not only was there a failure to communicate, Clinton writes, but Democrats got stuck defending "big government," almost always a losing hand in American politics. And here's where Clinton's mostly implicit critique goes beyond PR skill and style. What Obama needs to do more, he writes, is to focus on "what works" — programs that deliver tangible results that voters can see.
That means more public-private partnerships and more small-scale pilot programs to show that government activism can succeed. It means quicker, more aggressive regulatory reform to remove obstacles from private enterprise.
And it means a bigger, more visible effort at reforming the way the federal government works, modeled (surprise!) after the Clinton administration's Reinventing Government program.
"The idea that the government would mess up a two-car parade has shaped the framework in which we debate the issues," Clinton writes. But a big, visible reform program can disrupt that Republican narrative and show voters that "government doesn't always mess everything up. It can be worth what you pay for it."
In short, Clinton is saying: If Obama wants to win the debate in 2012 over whether the country needs an activist federal government, he needs to be more Clintonesque. To which the White House response has been: We're doing the best we can. In public, Obama spokesmen have politely thanked the former president for his support, even if his friendly advice has sometimes felt a little like friendly fire. Being accused of political malpractice, even gently, by a much-admired former president can't be good.
In fact, Obama has already taken some of Clinton's advice. During the last few weeks, the president has unveiled plans for Clinton-style "small ball" federal initiatives that he can accomplish through executive order, without waiting for a balky Congress to act: programs to help underwater homeowners refinance their mortgages, to lengthen repayment terms for student loans and to reduce shortages of prescription drugs. He's launched a regulatory reform effort to identify rules that get in the way of business development. And, long before Clinton spoke up, Obama's Office of Management and Budget went to work on administrative reform — although the Obama White House never made it a showpiece the way the Clinton administration did.
Is it too late for Barack Obama, the cool, cerebral advocate of big government programs, to turn himself into another Bill Clinton, the empathetic advocate of voter-friendly micro-initiatives?
Probably. But from the Democrats' standpoint, it's surely worth a try.