President For A Night

President Obama has been under intense fire from the Left for his tax deal with Republicans.  House Democrats are trying to kill it entirely, while their counterparts in the Senate have thrown so much spending on top of the deal that it has, perhaps, become too toxic for the Republicans to accept.  Obama decided to have former President Bill Clinton over to discuss the situation.  The two had what Obama described as “a terrific meeting” when they appeared before reporters afterward.

Obama said of Clinton, “Given the fact that he presided over as good an economy as we’ve seen in our lifetimes, that it might be useful for him to share some of his thoughts.”  This is factually incorrect, unless addressed to someone too young to remember the Reagan boom, and also willing to ignore the dot-com collapse at the end of Clinton’s term.  There are plenty of people who meet these criteria, so it’s not surprising Obama would say something along those lines.

What is surprising is what Obama did next: he mumbled something about a Christmas party and ran away, leaving Clinton as the acting President of the United States for the duration of the press conference.  Come on, admit it – you didn’t see that coming.

The differences between Clinton and Obama are fascinating.  Both of them, along with the vast majority of politicians in both parties, are egotists, but they express their hunger for adulation in entirely different ways.  Obama is demanding, and profoundly thin-skinned, while Clinton likes to give humor and energy to the crowd, and watch it roll around back to him.  This weird press conference perfectly displayed the contrast between them.  Obama is accustomed to receiving awards just for showing up, while Clinton would never dream of walking away from a crowd and a microphone.

Another contrast can be seen in the way they use humor.  Clinton made a joke about how he doesn’t want a “tax cut,” even though he “makes quite a bit of money now,” so a tax cut for the rich would personally benefit him.  Obama has made the exact same comment on numerous occasions.  The difference is that Clinton knows it’s an absurd point – as if the extra power gained from taxing billions out of the economy wouldn’t be a bargain for any politician, in exchange for a bit of his personal income.  Clinton has fun with it; there’s a twinkle in the old con artist’s eye. 

When Obama makes that joke, it’s stiff and demanding.  He’s running down a checklist of debate points, and he just ticked off the box that says “establish your moral superiority as a selfless man of the people & wait for applause.”  He’s not having fun.  He’s executing a program.

Clinton, the Great Triangulator, understands the nature of politics as a series of compromises.  He didn’t at first – remember back in the mid-90s when he blew a gasket and ended up pounding his podium like a spoiled child, wailing that Republicans just kept saying “no, no, no, no, no?”  He learned from this mistake, and came to savor the art of the deal.  He told the assembled reporters today, “Everybody’s got to give a little.  This system was set up to promote principled compromise.  It is an ethical thing to do.  In a democracy where no one is a dictator, we would all be at each other’s throats all the time.”

Boy, it’s a shame he couldn’t have explained that to Barack Obama two years ago.  President Kickass has told his political opponents to “not do a lot of talking right now,” meekly obey him because “I won,” get their hands off the steering wheel, go to the back of the bus, and suck their Slurpees.  He’s all about having people at each other’s throats, having told his supporters to “get in their faces,” “punch back twice as hard,” and “punish your enemies.”  He was last seen describing his Republican negotiating partners as terrorists who had “taken him hostage.”  He was only a little nicer to his critics on the Left, calling them “sanctimonious, unrealistic purists.”

I think Obama might have made a serious mistake by putting Clinton on that stage, and making such an astonishing show of abandoning his own responsibility, as if tonight was the beginning of a resignation he plans to spend two more years delivering.  It’s not just that Clinton looks good compared to Obama.  It’s that Democrats are making a huge mistake by putting Bill Clinton in front of the public again.

Clinton’s legacy looks best through a haze of nostalgia.  The less people focus on the things he actually did, the better.  Democrats have uploaded a heavily edited Matrix reality of the Clinton years into their minds, essentially forgetting everything that happened between 1998 and 2000.  They really don’t want to think about the path that led from Clinton’s negligence to 9/11, and will viciously suppress inconvenient TV documentaries that so much as hint at it.

As long as Clinton is a warm, fuzzy memory from the past, used primarily as a talking point, he’s reasonably safe.  Under the glare of the spotlight, he turns radioactive.  Put the man front and center, and people might begin discussing other names: Mark Rich, James Riady, Juanita Broadderick, Al Gore, or Monica Lewinsky.  They might think back to the unsavory things that were going on when Clinton left office, or how the central issue of the 2000 campaign was “restoring honor to the White House.”  They might recall the intense effort staged to “rehabilitate” his legacy, and remember why that was necessary.

Obama made himself look very bad by abandoning that stage to Clinton tonight.  He gained nothing in the long run, and judging by reaction from both Left and Right, he didn’t even get any momentary relief.  Bitter dead-ender Democrats might smile for a moment at the sound of “The Man From Hope’s” smooth delivery, but the smiles will quickly fade when they’re back to dealing with the smoking ruins of Hope and Change.  Republicans and independents are merely confirmed in their growing assessment that they really are witnessing the worst Presidency of the modern era.  Maybe Obama should turn his next press conference over to Jimmy Carter.