Obama's Options: What Would Slick Willie Do?

It is evening. Dinner is over, and I can see Bill Clinton sitting back at a table. In my fantasy, he has a mischievous smile on his face and a cigar in his right hand; his left hand lies on the knee of a scantily-clad lass less than half his age; and he is waiting in vain for the President to call.


Republicans, when on the spot, are apt to ask themselves, “What would Reagan do?” Democrats would be well advised, when in similar straits, to ponder what Bill Clinton would do. For whatever one might think of him — and in the last couple of years Democrats have been as likely to badmouth the man as Republicans — Slick Willie is a survivor who knows how to stage a comeback when nearly everyone thinks him not only down but permanently out. It was with such a figure in mind that H. L. Mencken wrote these immortal words: “The smarter the politician, the more things he believes and the less he believes any of them.”

I have no doubt what advice Clinton would give Barack Obama if the latter were to make that call. He would tell him to jettison Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod; to hire a David Gergen, and a Dick Morris; to leave Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, and their minions twisting in the wind; and to announce in his State of the Union Address that the era of big government is once again at an end.

Clinton would instruct him to drop healthcare reform, fall silent on the global warming scam, abandon cap-and-trade, and forget about closing Guantanamo and trying terrorists in civil courts. He would advise him to cut a deal with the Republicans and with endangered Democrats from swing states and swing districts and join with them in passing tort reform, in trimming domestic spending, and in making permanent the tax cuts first introduced by the younger Bush.

With an eye to encouraging employers to rehire those laid off, Clinton would urge Obama to join with that coalition to institute a temporary cut in the payroll taxes businesses pay the Social Security administration; and, if the economy did not quickly turn around, he would urge him to team up with John McCain, sing, “Bomb, bomb, bomb! Bomb, bomb Iran!” — and take out the nuclear program of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Slick Willie would, I think, tell him all of this, and he would be right. I doubt whether such a turnabout would do the Democrats in Congress any good ten months from now, but Clinton would not think that Obama should be concerned with the welfare of a party he himself always thought expendable. He would advise the President to worship the rising, not the setting sun; and he would remind him that, if Iran gets nuclear weapons and the economy is not in markedly better shape in November, 2012, his own goose will be cooked.

I doubt, however, whether Barack Obama would seek or could take such advice. He is more likely to channel Jimmy Carter than the Arkansas Kid. In his heyday, Bill Clinton was an accomplished rogue. He bamboozled women from all walks of life, and he exercised his charms on everyone he met. Like many a practiced seducer, to accomplish the job that he had in mind, he could be just about anyone he needed to be. Jimmy Carter was more high-minded than this; and, once he got an idea into his head, he tended in a rigid fashion to stay on script.

Barack Obama is, I think, even more self-righteous than Carter was. When he is on stage, there is always a whiff of fanaticism in the air. It is this that explains his almost complete lack of scruples with regard to the means he uses in pursuit of what he takes to be sacred ends. As a colleague of mine contends, he is really a preacher, and he is intent on doing us what he takes to be good whether we want it and consent or not.

Obama may also be, as I have suggested elsewhere, a one-trick pony. He may be nothing more than an empty suit with a golden tongue. Arm him with a teleprompter, and he can be dynamite. Take it away, and he is no less apt to make a fool of himself than is his Vice-President.

He is, moreover, pathetically vain. His natural instinct is to pose as a Messiah and to praise himself, trash his opponents, and blame everything untowards that happens on that bogus bogeyman George W. Bush. This posture was always insufferable and undignified, and it is now wearing thin, but it may be the only posture that Barack Obama knows how to assume.

Thus, last Wednesday, in his interview on ABC with George Stephanopoulos, the President once again resorted to Bush-bashing with his claim that “the same thing that swept Scott Brown into office swept me into office. People are angry, and they’re frustrated. Not just because of what’s happened in the last year or two years, but what’s happened over the last eight years.”

And he blamed himself and his administration only for a failure of communication: “we were so busy just getting stuff done and dealing with the immediate crises that were in front of us, that I think we lost some of that sense of speaking directly to the American people about what their core values are and why we have to make sure those institutions are matching up with those values.”

If this means that he will respond to Scott Brown’s victory in Massachusetts simply by turning up the volume — and we should learn the upshot when the President delivers his State of the Union Address on Tuesday night — we are in for quite a ride.

Here again, however, H. L. Mencken can come to our rescue. “Any defeat,” he wrote, “however trivial, may be fatal to a savior of the plain people. They never admire a Messiah with a bloody nose.”