Rachel Maddow recently referred to Bill Clinton as the "perfect Republican president" and wondered whether Barack Obama would follow in his footsteps. I think this is to misjudge both Clinton and Obama. In neither do "Republican" or "perfect" apply. There is a better descriptive for Clinton and a deeper malaise concerning Obama.
Clinton came into office after the moderate presidency of George Bush Sr. He articulated modestly progressive goals and satisfied many of them. He was attacked ferociously by the Republicans and right wing media, not for being a Republican but because he was not. He endured the meteoric rise and fall of Newt Gingrich who shut down the Government for a short time. He maintained a consistent progressive message and governed wisely, leaving an enduring legacy of deficit reduction and the longest sustained period of economic growth in American history. U.S. power and prestige was stable and respected. The Monica Lewinsky scandal certainly marred his presidency, and he will go down with the onus of being impeached. But this was not a fatal blow to his presidency. Monica was a dalliance, and everyone knew that. His attempts at cover-up were what virtually every male would have done in similar circumstances. He endured his impeachment with what grace contrition could offer while continuing to lead the nation with competence and poise. He left the presidency and still remains widely respected and popular.
Obama, on the other hand, came into office after perhaps the most disastrous presidency in American history, during which American power and prestige were savaged by a foreign policy and the fomenting of war based on deliberate deception and cynical deceit. Thus when Obama began to articulate his message of the audacity of hope, people across America and if fact around the world began to anticipate a truly transformational presidency, for this was what history demanded after such a painful period of corruption and decay. Indeed, progressives and the Democratic Party believed this so fervently that we sidelined Hillary Clinton, who under any other circumstances would have been nominated and be president today. We bypassed experience and competence for the audacity of hope.
Not nominating Hillary was decision we may come to regret for what we believed so passionately about Obama has not come to pass. There has been no transformational presidency. Instead, Obama came in seeking to be a conciliator but without the gravitas to accomplish either conciliation or compromise. Moreover, he has not been able to govern with the experience and competence Hillary could offer because this is not in his background. The Republicans intuit this lack and have ferociously and successfully hammered him in the critical arena in which he has little experience or skill -- Washington politics.
Obama was only the right choice if, in the spirit of FDR, transformation was his intent. Obama has thus become a president out of sync with his time, for what he was nominated and elected to accomplish, he has left uninitiated. If tough minded competence is what we wanted, Hillary was far and away the right choice. She would have beaten the Republicans at their game, just like Bill did.
From the very first bar, in fact from his very first decision to appoint Rahm Emmanuel as Chief of Staff, Obama has selected in-the-box ministers and advisers gripped by the constraints of conventional wisdom. Ironically, Hillary lost to him because she ran a conventional campaign. Obama is losing credibility and power because he is running a conventional presidency.
Obama's demise is largely due to the power of Rahm Emmanuel, who has left his stamp on the Obama presidency more than the president has, convincing an intuitive statesman to become little more than a tactical politician. More fundamentally, Obama has surrounded himself with ministers and aides drawn from the Clinton presidency. While during the 1990s they were essentially progressive, under current circumstances they are largely outmoded because they are outdated. Twentieth century thinking still governs America in the twentyfirst. We are a nation out of sync with ourselves.
Nowhere is this more clear than in Obama's choice of Tim Geithner and Larry Summers to develop and run his financial and economic policies. At the moment when America and Wall Street needed a transformation reminiscent of FDR's New Deal, the president chose the very people who had participated in Wall Street's collapse to determine his policies. The urgency of transformation has been reduced to business as usual. But the need for transformation has not thereby been eliminated. It is even more urgent, and the fact that it is not being transacted is a large reason for the anger, malaise and dysfunction that currently grips the country.
This is a critical mistake, from which the nation might not soon recover, if at all. The U.S. and the world needed and wanted transformation, not just to recover from George Bush but because a myriad of global issues, most critically climate change and the financial integrity of our economic institutions, demanded new thinking and new transpartisan politics. Instead the nation has been given little more than Bush lite. We have thus missed a golden opportunity for a renewal of the human spirit at perhaps the most critical juncture in recent history, an awareness of which was burning so brightly in the collective world consciousness that Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in anticipation of what he would do, such was the hope he ignited. But he is missing his moment, and thus America sinks deeper into a morass of political division and corruption while the world at large remains adrift without effective leadership.
In this sense, while Bill Clinton might not have been as progressive as Rachel Maddow and other progressives might have wished, he was right for his time and is passing into history with distinction and grace. Obama, however, while igniting a transformational vision, is forfeiting the precious window of opportunity he was given and has thus started his presidency as incipient tragedy.
Jim Garrison serves as president of State of the World Forum and Wisdom University. He is the author of America as Empire and other books on world affairs. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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