Don’t Stop Thinking About . . . Yesterday?

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on December 12, 2010

So, everyone has been talking over the past couple days about the Barack Obama/Bill Clinton Show at the White House Press Room, which eventually became just the Bill Clinton Show. I finally got a chance to view the whole briefing, which you can see here. It’s a really long briefing, but you should watch the whole thing. I’ll wait:

Done? Splendid. A few points:

1. Whoever thought it was a good idea to allow President Obama to turn over the podium to Bill “I’ve Never Met A Microphone I Ran Away From, Or A Spotlight I Didn’t Crave” Clinton, doesn’t know the first thing about contemporary American politics. I would have hoped, of course, that it was some staffer who dreamed up this public relations fiasco, but it would appear that the main culprit in bringing about a gripping press briefing, lasting over half an hour, in which the incumbent President of the United States not only ceded the spotlight, but also appeared to cede political power, authority, and command to the 42nd President of the United States, was none other than the incumbent President of the United States. Poor Robert Gibbs (I actually feel sorry for him), seemed to be very wary of having both Presidents Obama and Clinton go into the Press Room on a spur-of-the-moment basis, and if so, his wariness was justified, but one doesn’t exactly tell the current and former Presidents of the United States that they cannot hold a press briefing, when they have resolved to do just that. And so, naturally perhaps, Gibbs abandoned any idea of talking Obama and Clinton out of holding the press conference, and instead went about trying to find reporters to sit in on the event. A pity, from President Obama’s perspective; if Gibbs had told his boss that (a) it was crazy to have a spur-of-the-moment briefing; and that (b) it was even crazier for President Obama to surrender the stage to former President Clinton, with the excuse that President Obama had to go attend a Christmas party, the White House Communications Department may have been saved a great deal of grief, completely awful optics, and whispers that perhaps, just perhaps, the incumbent President of the United States is losing control, and abdicating responsibility.

2. While I recognize that Bill Clinton loves, adores, and craves the spotlight, it was utterly and completely wrong of him to take it at President Obama’s expense. I don’t imagine that there is a great deal of love lost between the two men, the Democratic nomination fight between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton oftentimes turned into a fight between Barack Obama and Bill Clinton (in one debate between the Democratic candidates, when Hillary Clinton reminded Barack Obama that he was running against her, and not Bill Clinton, Obama replied by saying that it was sometimes hard to tell the difference). And I don’t imagine that Bill Clinton would shed a lot of tears in the event that Barack Obama lost in 2012, except, perhaps, to the extent that such a loss might prematurely end his wife’s own public service career. But that’s no excuse for engaging in a public relations exercise with the ostensible motive of helping President Obama on Capitol Hill, but which (and let’s not pretend that Bill Clinton didn’t know this) had the effect of making Bill Clinton look titanic, and made Barack Obama look small. When the two of them shared the same stage, it was easy to forget that President Obama was even there, as Bill Clinton held forth. A former President ought not to make a successor look so bad in public, especially when that successor is of the former President’s own party.

3. All of the above having been written, the depth of command that Clinton demonstrated on the stage was nothing short of astonishing–despite the fact that we have seen him display the ability to command and take over an event countless times. Clinton’s political skills may have left him during the 2008 campaign, but they have clearly returned. He effortlessly dominated the discussion, getting hyper-wonky on the issue of credit lending, making references to stimulus policies in Hong Kong and FDR lectures to Choate in 1926, and showing that he had become, once again, the razor-sharp politician that he was back when he was in the White House. In addition to all of the factoids the former President appeared to have at his fingertips, he also made sure to include in his soliloquy a whole host of self-glorifying comments, mentioning offhand that he studies economic issues for an hour a day, and talking about the number of political events he did for Democrats during the 2010 election season (133). All of this is the kind of braggadocio that longtime Clinton watchers are used to, but it still serves to play viewers and voters like fiddles. Bill Clinton said that he wasn’t running for anything, but viewers could be forgiven for thinking otherwise. As Michael Scherer writes:

When a reporter’s question gave Obama a brief moment to take back the microphones, he seemed to move towards them, but Clinton did not give way. So leaning, Obama said that his wife had been waiting for him for a half hour, at a previously mentioned holiday party, and he was going to leave. “I don’t want to make her mad,” Clinton responded. “Please go.” Indeed.

[. . .]

“First of all I feel awkward being here,”Clinton said, when he first took the microphone. Nothing could have been further from the truth.

4. Finally, I guess all of this means that Iowahawk called it.

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  • Anonymous

    On Fox News Sunday, Mara Liasson said Obama was “showing leadership” by turning the proceedings over to Clinton. Of course when Mara was a child she always got Lilliput confused with Brobdingnag, so that may explain her particular perspective on what went down at the press briefing.

  • CR

    It is now official; Barack Hussein Obama wants to be an ex-President already. With this presser he all but abdicated his office.

  • Taxpayer1234

    Maybe Bill wants to run for a Senate seat?

  • Steve

    Mr_Miyagi: I’ll just bet that’s what Mara’s DC journalist friends saying in private.

    Pejman: Regarding your points 1 and 2, I’m reminded of the many times in 2008 and early 2009 that folks who’d fallen in love with Obama would say some variation of the following: Sure, he doesn’t have a lot of executive experience, but look at how well he ran his campaign. Well, anyone capable of “running” a Presidential campaign would have seen the inherent dangers your cite – one’s apparent to the resident press secretary, no less. I suggest this is good evidence that Obama doesn’t have the judgement to manage a presidential campaign now or then.

  • Anonymous

    Regarding your Point 3 about Clinton losing his political skills in 2008. Do you really think he lost his political skills? Is it possible for him to have lost them and then regained them so quickly? Or was it a matter of him being blindsided by toxic race card slime hurled at him without compunction by certain elements of the Obama camp? It was the same tactic they tried to pull on the Tea Party protesters in March, cynically making accusations that had no basis in reality. If even Bill Clinton had trouble fending off that putrid tactic (with plenty of supporters and press nominally sympathetic to him) you have to think it’s a miracle that any Republicans ever get elected to office. They deck is stacked against them from the getgo in a way it rarely if ever is for Democrats (as Bill Clinton found out to his surprise and chagrin).

  • svg1234

    Both of these two “men” can’t think of anyone else. One narcissist got played by the other. Obama lost. Media attention to Clinton is like crack. Unlike others, I was not impressed by Clinton’s performance (which is exactly what it always was, and still is). Theater. And a lot of BS (as usual). This event was ugly in so many ways, on so many levels. The big loser? The United States of America. When will she elect a real man (or woman) – a true leader? The last 3 have been real duds.

  • Donald Sensing

    This is a president of ceremony, not substance. For the first time, the United States has a chief of state but not a head of government. And now we have Bill Clinton as prime minister.

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  • the wolf

    I was under the impression that this was Gibbs idea. Which, if true, is pretty incompetent for a press secretary.

    Obama…what can one say? Just not ready for prime time. Oh, he’s great at theatrics, but not equipped for his office. Many of us knew this before the election–sadly, not enough.

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