Bill Clinton: If you want my advice (or even if you don't)
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President Barack Obama and his Democratic allies made two key political missteps in recent years, former President Bill Clinton says in a new book to be released Tuesday.
First was not raising the federal debt ceiling in the first two years of the president's term, when Democrats still had a majority in Congress, and then failing to devise an effective national campaign message during the midterm elections of 2010.
Mr. Clinton also suggests, obliquely, that Mr. Obama's criticism of Wall Street has been too harsh and counterproductive.
The 42nd president periodically surfaces with cheerful tips on how he managed the economy and offers these observations in his book, titled "Back to Work: Why We Need Smart Government for a Strong Economy."
The volume is dense with criticism of Republicans; it devotes substantial attention to what Mr. Clinton describes as the GOP's relentless "antigovernment ideology," which he identifies as the cause of the anemic economy, high unemployment and the U.S. inability to compete on the world stage.
But the book's subtext is that Mr. Obama has struggled, both to identify workable economic policies and to outmaneuver his Republican foes.
"The Democrats did not counter the national Republican message with one of their own," Mr. Clinton writes of the Democratic losses in 2010. "There was no national advertising campaign to explain and defend what they had done and to compare their agenda for the next two years with the GOP proposals." He compares it with Democratic congressional defeats in 1994, during his tenure.
The very existence of such a book by the former president -- which Mr. Clinton says was inspired by the 2010 midterm losses -- has produced some eye-rolling among senior Obama advisers, and is certain to spur a new round of unwelcome comparisons between the 1990s and today.
Mr. Clinton mostly aligns himself with Mr. Obama on the big picture, arguing that the president did the right thing -- or, at least, the best he could -- with the stimulus package, given the economy he inherited.
He dismisses Republican notions, such as privatizing Medicare and Medicaid, and offers a blistering rebuke of GOP tax cuts, contrasting the George W. Bush era with his own. "The antigovernment movement's most cherished conviction is that we can't raise taxes on the 'job creators,' " Mr. Clinton writes. "The biggest problem with their argument is that we tried it their way for 20 of the last 30 years, and their strategy of using blanket tax cuts for high-income individuals didn't work."
Mr. Clinton at times paints a gloomy portrait of the U.S. economy : "It is heartening that people all over the world want to pursue their version of the American Dream, but troubling that others are doing a better job than we are of providing it to their people," he writes in a passage about U.S. standing in the world. "I can understand the pessimism of the young," he writes. He later adds: "We're in a mess now."
Where Mr. Clinton gives Mr. Obama direct policy advice, it is fairly impersonal -- suggesting, for example, that the president restore the Small Business Administration as a Cabinet agency.
His more cutting criticism of Mr. Obama is implied. Mr. Clinton offers praise for Wall Street executives, saying many of them would be willing to contribute to improving the economy and cutting the deficit. "Many of them supported me when I raised their taxes in 1993, because I didn't attack them for their success," Mr. Clinton writes. Unspoken is that Mr. Obama has at times eviscerated Wall Street for its excesses, infuriating its leaders.
Specific suggestions in the book will sound familiar. Mr. Clinton proposes letting home-owners with government-guaranteed mortgages refinance loans at a lower interest rate, which the White House did two weeks ago. He encourages the passage of free trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama, which Mr. Obama signed into law last month.
The relationship between Mr. Clinton and Mr. Obama has long been a complex one, with most public signs pointing to a polite but distant friendship.
First Published November 5, 2011 12:09 am