THE BLOG
12/01/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

To Deal with the Global Economic Crisis, Obama Will Need the Clinton Touch

If Barack Obama is elected President in six days there will be little doubt that the financial crisis of the last few months helped win him the election. But will an Obama Administration be able to solve the world's most complex economic crisis in almost a century?

Of the two candidates, Obama has more clearly recognized the need, as he describes it, for "new direction," "new leadership," and a "real change in the policies and politics of the last eight years."

Yet merely turning the clock back eight years, to the Halcyon days of the Clinton Administration, won't do the trick. However lofty Obama's rhetoric, the reality is that his chief economic advisors, people such as Clinton alumni Robert Rubin and Lawrence Summers, were among the biggest supporters of the deregulation of financial markets and cheap-credit driven growth that led to the current mortgage, credit and financial crises.

It's hard to imagine that officials who invested so much in the system now in collapse could accept the need for a significant reorientation of the American economy, never mind lend a hand in what French President Nicholas Sarkozy rightly describes as the "refoundation of world capitalism."

At the heart of such a refounding would be ensuring a more equitable and sustainable distribution of global resources and wealth. As Obama declared during the last debate, "When you spread the wealth around it's good for everybody."

The problem is that for over a generation our economy has been built around the myth that no such spreading was necessary. Americans bought into the ideology that we could consume like the rich without actually being wealthy, and, as important, without considering the economic, and ultimately ecological, costs of the consumer-driven "American way of life."

It's hard to see how, while managing at least two wars and numerous other threats to our national security, Obama would be able to devote the time, energy and political capital necessary to shepherd the country towards what amounts to a new social contract. Making the task harder is his well-documented difficulties forging connections with either middle or upper class Americans--Joe the Plumber or Joseph the hedge fund manager.

Obama needs help. Only one figure in contemporary American politics combines an uncanny ability to "feel the pain" of working and middle class Americans while retaining the trust of Wall Street; who has the command of the bully pulpit necessary to convince Americans across the socio-economic spectrum of the need for a new bottom line, and the detailed knowledge of policy-making in the global age required to manage what will be a long and painful transition to a new order.

That person is, of course, Bill Clinton.

It was Clinton, after all, whose 1992 campaign was driven by the slogan "It's the economy, Stupid!" One of his first moves after being elected was to convene an "Economic Summit" in Little Rock, where 300 policy-makers, scholars, business and labor leaders discussed how best to transform the American economy to meet the challenges of the emerging global system.

During the next eight years, the Clinton Administration would manage both the greatest and most widely distributed generation of wealth in the United States since World War II.

It is true that towards the end of the 1990s Wall Street began to pull too far away from Main Street, which coupled with Clinton's uncritical embrace of Free Trade as the panacea for the ills of the developing world, helped lay the groundwork for the frenzied deregulatory policies of his successor.

But Clinton's instincts and sympathies always remained with the working and middle classes, whose overall rise in standard of living he counts as his "greatest accomplishment" as President. As important, more than most politicians Clinton has a record of learning from mistakes, and for being able to talk convincingly both to Main Street and Wall Street.

Clinton's activities since leaving office, as head of the Clinton Global Initiative, have added to his position on the world stage, and to his knowledge of both the possibilities and the innumerable pitfalls involved in bringing about far-reaching social and economic change.

Indeed, while the annual gatherings of the CGI has been characterized (and in some quarters, derided) as "elitist," Clinton has been ahead of the curve in understanding the need to enlarge the policy-making conversation--to bring the most innovative scholars, business leaders, grass roots activists, artists and other culture producers, and policy-makers into the same room to share their multifarious insights and experiences in order to meet the difficult challenges facing the United States and the world today.

After eight years of Bush Administration arrogance, greed and incompetence, the world is desperate for such a holistic and transformative strategy for change, one that can brings people together across political, economic, and national lines towards a common purpose.

Obama's vision is both lofty and inspiring, but he will just be claiming the mantle of authority at a political moment when there is little time for on the job learning. And while his running mate, Joe Biden, has a stronger middle class appeal, his expertise in foreign policy will be sorely needed for other urgent tasks.

Given this dynamic, imagine the impact on world financial markets, and consumer confidence, if Obama announced that he was appointing former President Clinton to head a commission tasked with forging the national and global consensus to refound our economies on a surer and more sustainable footing.

Some might say that in the middle of a war on terror, and with the global economy spiraling into recession, stability and well-tested remedies are the order of the day, rather than pressing for far reaching changes to the very basis of the American economy. But history offers a precedent for taking bold action in the midst of war and economic turmoil.

In 1944, a year before the end of World War II, the United States brought together the major industrial states to establish a new institutional architecture for the global economy. The resulting Bretton Woods sysem helped ensure that out of the ashes of global war an unprecedented level of economic prosperity was enabled.

The same level of cooperation between industry, labor and government will be necessary to refound the American and global capitalism on a more sustainable and equitable footing today. Barack Obama has the intelligence and vision to achive such a transformation, but he can't do it alone. With a policy-maker and communicator of Clinton's stature to help shape the national and global conversation, there's at least a fighting chance that Main Street and Wall Street will transcend narrow interests and outmoded identities to forge a sustainable path back to economic prosperity, at home and around the world.