Easter said he started out as a big Obama supporter, but he’s “backed off” because he thinks Obama has “fallen down on leadership. I think that Grimes is, you know, I think she is that type of leader like Bill Clinton was,” he said. —Huffington Post, 8/6
As Hillary stumbles and President Obama slumps, Bill Clinton keeps getting more popular—Maureen Dowd, “A Popular President,” NY Times, 7/19
Bill Clinton and Barack Obama’s approval numbers are moving in opposite directions. Democratic Senate candidates like Kentucky’s Alison Lundergan Grimes are campaigning with Clinton while keeping distance from Obama, leading many to recall Clinton’s support in “red” states.
Dowd’s column above recycles many of the common explanations for Clinton’s allegedly greater popularity: he’s “warm” while Obama is cold, loves politics while Obama “doesn’t care much” for his chosen field, and never stopped “reaching out” to Republicans.
But these explanations for Clinton’s greater popularity are baloney. And they also don’t address who is more popular among the Democratic base.
Clinton is more popular among all voters because he is a Southern, white “good old boy” to Obama’s urban African American. Clinton was also a far more conservative President than Obama, whose politics have never won favor with “moderate” white voters and a traditional media that was a lap dog for the right-wing George W. Bush.
Clinton’s Conservative Record
As the media defines Bill Clinton as the “soul” of the Democratic Party, its worth recalling that his chief accomplishments as President were strongly opposed by the Party’s base.
For example, Clinton used Republican support to pass NAFTA, apparently the type of “reaching out” to the GOP that some wish Obama would do. NAFTA cost the United States an estimated 700,000 jobs, many of which were union. Labor and other Democratic Party constituencies have paid a steep price for NAFTA, whose passage was promoted by the same traditional media now trumpeting Clinton’s superior political skills to Obama’s.
In 1996, Clinton also turned to Republicans to eliminate the federal welfare entitlement. Welfare caseloads have dropped sharply, increasing family homelessness, child hunger, and poverty. Clinton agreed to the Republican welfare agenda to help his 1996 re-election bid; if Obama tried such a political move, the Clinton-applauding media would have accused him of sacrificing poor people for personal gain.
President Clinton’s 1999 repeal of key provisions of the New Deal’s Glass-Steagall Act has been widely blamed for the financial crisis of 2008. Yet even progressives focus more on Obama’s weak regulation of Wall Street in 2009 than on Clinton’s opening up the speculative door.
On issue after issue, from the Defense of Marriage Act to his crime bills that helped grow the prison industrial complex (and which allowed the sentencing disparities between powder and crack cocaine that Obama has curtailed), Clinton won media plaudits by politically moving to the right.
Superior Political Skills?
Clinton’s popularity is also attributed to his allegedly superior political skills. The media’s common frame is that unlike Obama, who turns in early, Clinton would spend all night talking to folks to get his ideas accepted.
But despite overwhelming Democratic majorities in Congress and a far less obstructionist political environment, President Clinton failed to enact his signature health care reform law. In fact, the Clinton health care process became a textbook example of how not to do politics in Washington D.C.
But nor does it matter. Because the media’s test of “political skills” is how a President deals with them, not the public at large.
The best test of political skills is actual election results. Clinton got 43% of the vote in 1992, and 49% in 1996 despite running against a very weak Bob Dole and having “ended welfare as we know it” to boost his support. Obama got nearly 53% in 2008 and 51% against Mitt Romney, a much stronger and better financed candidate than Dole in 1996.
I saw a clip last week where Clinton advisor James Carville was asked to explain a poll that found most Americans now prefer Romney to Obama. Carville responded that the only poll that counted was that created by the US Constitution, and that this poll occurred on Election Day.
Bill Clinton’s Legacy
Bill Clinton won the 1992 election at a time when political experts believed that the Democrats would be structurally unable to win the White House for decades. He forever changed the nation’s electoral calculus.
Clinton also transformed the Party’s image from the weakness identified with the Carter, Mondale and Dukakis campaigns to one of strength. No longer were Democrats afraid to hit back, or to go on the offensive.
But Clinton’s legacy also includes turning the nation’s economy over to Wall Street, and undermining labor’s bargaining leverage against corporations. Far more Democrats were fed up with the Party at the end of the Clinton years than will be the case as Obama departs in 2016.
Obama has left a base energized to elect President Hillary Clinton in 2016; rank and file Democrats noticeably lacked enthusiasm for Al Gore’s 2000 campaign.
If Obama soon grants legalization to roughly 5 million undocumented immigrants, he will end up being the most popular President among Democrats since FDR. But the poll proving Obama’s historic base popularity awaits his leaving office. After all, today’s Bill Clinton numbers show that the longer a President is out of the limelight, the more popular they often get.