Last week I had a chance to talk one on one with former President Bill Clinton and I asked him what he thought of President Obama’s first year in office.
This was my second meeting with Clinton. The first was right after the 1996 presidential debates, when I jogged with the President for half an hour on the beach in San Diego. You can read my account here.
The occasion for my second encounter was the annual International Crisis Group Award Dinner, a black tie affair at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City. I was the guest of Frank Holmes, president of U.S. Global Funds and co-chair of the dinner. ICG was established in 1995 to prevent war, and is heavily funded by financial gurus George Soros and Frank Giustra. About 400 people came to witness former presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton receive the Fred Cuny Award for the Prevention of Deadly Conflict, followed by a short concert by James Taylor.
Bush was unable to attend, but Clinton appeared and spoke for half an hour on armed conflict around the world, and much of his remarks were pointed toward the Obama administration. He warned that the United States needs to “walk a tight rope” when it comes to negotiating peace in the Middle East. “Ultimately,” he said, “the Middle East must do it on their own.” The Israelis and Palestinians must be willing to “get over it,” he said, referring to past wars and hatred, and when they do, they will become a region known “not for energy, but for enterprise.”
Clinton pointed to Rwanda as an example. In 1994, during the Clinton years, this central African nation was torn apart by a bloody civil war between the Hutus and Tutsis resulting in the mass murder of one million civilians. But, Clinton said, the Rwandans have moved beyond the genocide, and have made tremendous progress in rebuilding their country. While nations like Haiti have seen no increase in per capita income, Rwanda’s per capita income has tripled.
After his talk, I had a chance to ask President Clinton what he thought of Obama’s tax and spend policies. I asked him, “You left the presidency with a budget surplus, but since then our country has seen massive deficits. What went wrong?”
He bluntly replied that he had a “pro-surplus” policy and George Bush had a “pro-deficit” policy, and now Obama has inherited an even worse “pro-deficit” policy. Clinton said he understood and approved of the need for running deficits during a financial crisis to avoid another Great Depression, but, he said, unlike the 1930s, in today’s world a great deal of the federal deficit is being financed overseas by the Chinese. “That’s a serious danger,” he said.
Then, raising his finger, Clinton emphasized that President Obama must immediately “cut spending” when the economy finally recovers.
“What about raising taxes on the rich?” I asked. “Or do you favor cutting the corporate income tax to stimulate job creation?”
His answer surprised me. “Our tax system is anti-business and too complex. Now more than ever, we need tax relief for American business.”
Bill Clinton sounded like a supply-sider to me.
James Taylor started singing, so that was the end of our conversation, but I got the distinct impression that Clinton thought President Obama was anything but a “pro-growth” new Democrat.