The Ghost of Presidents Past: Bill Clinton and the 2012 Presidential Election

Having been duly chastised for speaking his mind four years ago, Bill Clinton is now being utilised by President Obama’s re-election campaign. President Clinton is appearing in campaign commercials, lauding Obama’s prowess as Commander in Chief and hailing his ability to finish the job that Clinton himself had started in the late 1990s, the killing of Bin Laden.

In 2008 he was the staunchest supporter of Barack Obama’s archrival, Hillary Clinton. The former president was roundly and ridiculously attacked for suggesting that Obama’s candidacy was a joke and for expressing the opinion that Obama’s much vaunted opposition to the Iraq War was a fairy tale. In the process he learnt a lesson that has become apparent in Europe: “Thou Shalt Not Speak bad of Obama for fear of being misconstrued…”

It appears that in politics, if you wait long enough, you see everything and that the troubling details of reality are forgotten, with only myth surviving. In the 1992 presidential campaign both the Democrat and Republican candidates made reference to Harry Truman and attempted to cast themselves as his political standard bearer, albeit for differing reasons. In addition, wave after wave of politicians from all walks of life have attempted to benefit from the legacy of the Kennedy bothers. This election season the ghost of presidents past appears to be Bill Clinton.

Of course the link between Obama and Clinton is an interesting one. Recall that Hillary Clinton was the presumptive Democratic candidate in 2008, only to see her one shot at the presidency usurped by Barack Obama, whose career she has sought to nurture in its early stages. The Clinton’s combined sense of unease at this is understandable and forms the basis for most of the Game Change book, as opposed to the HBO movie, that chose to ignore the Democratic infighting. Equally infuriating to the Clinton’s was the way in which their supporters chose to jump ship to Obama’s banner long before it became apparent that he was guaranteed victory. No defection was more symbolic than that of the Kennedys, whom Bill had courted assiduously during his time in office. Ultimately, Hillary and many former Clinton era officials wound up working for Obama in the White House, in a move that should put pay to the debate to the actor/agency debate in international relations theory.

However, Bill Clinton is also being touted by the presumptive Republican Mitt Romney, who is contrasting Clinton’s New Democrat approach with the seemingly Old Democrat mentality of Barack Obama. Speaking in Lansing, Michigan, Romney said of the contrast between Clinton and Obama:

“President Obama chose to apply liberal ideas of the past to a 21st century America. Liberal policies didn’t work then, they haven’t worked over the last four years, and they won’t work in the future. New Democrats had abandoned those policies, but President Obama resurrected them, with predictable results.

President Clinton said the era of big government was over. President Obama brought it back with a vengeance. Government at all levels now constitutes 38% of the economy, and if Obamacare is installed, it will reach almost 50%.”

President Clinton made efforts to reform welfare as we knew it. President Obama is trying tirelessly to expand the welfare state to all Americans, with promises of more programs, more benefits, and more spending.”

This is the same Bill Clinton that was impeached by the Republican controlled Congress; the same Bill Clinton who couldn’t get a single Republican to vote for his first budget and the same Bill Clinton who failed to receive over 50% of the popular vote in either 1992 or 1996. Now, apparently, he is Mitt Romney’s poster boy for sensible government!

All things considered, one can see why Romney would contrast Clinton’s time in office with Obama’s. Consider the economic record of the United States during Clinton’s tenure and the fact that by the 2000 election, the debate was about what to do with the budget surplus! It really is remarkable that Obama has not sought to make more use of Clinton during his first term in his efforts to get the economy back on track.

Of course, Bill Clinton is the ex-president who never really went away. An adroit campaigner, Clinton has never strayed from the limelight and appears incapable of yielding the floor to a new generation of politicians and to be honest, why should he? Over ten years after leaving office, Clinton still remains the Democrat’s most potent campaigner in chief. Clinton’s abilities were often overlooked, or dismissed as being evidence of a Slick Willy mentality, but he was and remains a political mastermind, capable of guile and cunning and a far more able politician than the current occupant of the White House.

Much is made of Obama’s rhetorical capacity, but his stumbling syntax when faced by a malfunctioning TelePrompTer reveals a different story. Contrast this with Bill Clinton’s State of the Union Address in 1994 when he was forced to ad-lib for 20 minutes due to the wrong speech having been loaded into the TelePrompTer.

The irony in all of this is incredible. In 20912 both Republican and Democratic candidates are utilising Bill Clinton in a positive light on their campaigns. In 2000 Clinton’s own vice president, Al Gore, refused to adequately utilise Clinton or even his own record in office and ended up loosing the election by a couple of hanging chads in Florida.

It will be interesting to see how Romney’s remarks play out in Republican political circles. It is likely that they will reinforce the widely held view of Romney as a RINO (Republican in Name Only) and that despite Rick Santorum’s middle of the night ‘endorsement’ he remains the “worst Republican in the country to put up against Barack Obama” in 2012.

Obama Caught Dancing in the End Zone: The Commander in Chief on His Victory Lap

Presidential election adverts have the potential to set the tone for campaigns and to make their mark in history. Notable examples include Lyndon Johnson’s notorious Daisy advert from 1964 and the commercials from President Reagan’s re-election campaign in 1984, The Bear and Morning in America.

It is unlikely that this latest effort from the Obama team entitled ‘One Chance’, will end up in this category of historically important averts, but it certainly appears that the Obama team has missed an historic opportunity to call for unity in this message. Essentially a 90 second commentary by former President Bill Clinton discussing Barack Obama’s decision to launch the mission that took out Osama bin Laden a year ago, the campaign advert has received widespread criticism.

The film goes beyond mere advocacy of the president’s decision to raise doubts as to whether Mitt Romney would have made the same call and launched the raid that killed bin Laden. It does so by use of Wolf Blitzer reading a Romney quote from several years ago, in which he questions the wisdom of “moving heaven and earth and spending billions of dollars to catch one person.” The suggestion that the president is ‘dancing in the End Zone’ was exacerbated by Obama’s decision to address the nation from Afghanistan last night.

In previous presidential elections, candidates have repeatedly sought to portray themselves as being strongest in terms of national security. During the Cold War in particular any weakness in this area was quickly pounced upon and exploited as a sign of weakness and unsuitability for the highest office in the land. Flaws in this area proved fatal for Adlai Stevenson in 1952 and 1956, for George McGovern in 1972 and Michael Dukakis never overcame his disastrous tank ride in 1988. Even Senator John Kerry, a decorated war hero, was unable to adequately exploit his escapades in Vietnam despite the contrasting positions adopted during that conflict by George W. Bush and Dick Cheney.

Interestingly, the advert does not feature Obama making any comment upon the killing. Instead he is shown in silhouette, looking out of a window in the Green Room of the White House, in an image clearly designed to replicate George Tames’ classic portrait of President John F. Kennedy in the Oval Office, alone with the awesome responsibility of power.

What is surprising, perhaps, is that Obama has taken so long to play the bin Laden card and one wonders how comfortable he is in doing so? However the president feels personally about this, he and his campaign have clearly recognised that they cannot afford to be out-muscled by their Republican challenger. History reveals that Republicans have traditionally been far more effective at presenting themselves as the natural defenders of U.S. national security in contrast to their Democratic rivals.

There is a long tradition in the United States of electing Republicans in time of national security threats and Democrats in time of economic crisis. This has been referred to as the ‘Daddy’ and ‘Mommy’ reaction to challenges; ‘Daddy’ will defend you, ‘mommy’ will sort out the finances. Clearly, this is far from flattering to Democratic Party sensibilities and the validity of this charge is questionable; it was, of course, Democratic administrations that took the United States into World War I, II, Korea and Vietnam. There is, therefore, something of a conservative myth of national security strength.

In 2008 Obama was a less muscular candidate and was attacked on this basis by Senator Hillary Clinton in her advert asking whom America wanted in the White House to take an emergency call at 3am. With a distinguished military record and family heritage, Senator John McCain was the national security candidate, but this was of little benefit in a time of financial crisis, which helped deliver the presidency to Barack Obama.

Four years later Obama needs to take advantage of his dual role as President and Commander-in-Chief to maximise his chance for re-election. To do so he is seeking to emphasize his successes, minimise his errors and exacerbate any perceived weakness in his opponent. In doing so he has the benefit of having been the president who authorised the mission that finally killed Osama bin Laden, over a decade after the assault on Washington and New York.

Some have suggested that his attempt to benefit from such an action is akin to Nixon claiming credit for the Moon landing in July 1969; an event that occurred under his watch, but which had been initiated almost a decade earlier by his fiercest political rival, President Kennedy. This, however, is disingenuous. All presidents have to take responsibility for events that occur on their watch, both good and bad. Just as President Carter was forced to run for re-election having launched the disastrous effort to recapture American hostages that resulted in the loss of life following helicopter crashes in the desert, so Obama gets to run as the president who got bin Laden. To deny him this achievement is petty.

Taking credit for operational successes during tenure in office is a time-honoured tradition. Claiming credit for engaging with the enemy has occurred in presidential addresses before and will happen in the future. President Obama is far from unusual in this regard.

However the campaign advert has missed an excellent opportunity to rally support and unify the nation. In seeking to highlight only the role played by the president in launching the operation to kill bin Laden, it has rightly been criticised for not mentioning the vital role played by the intelligence services, the military in general, SEAL Team 6 in particular and the work put in by the Bush Administration long before Obama came to office. A few words to share the accolades would have made a world of difference and actually benefited the White House by appearing to be magnanimous rather than triumphant. It has even led to criticism by the very Navy SEALS who led the operation.

This poor choice has been compounded by the un-necessary decision to raise questions as to whether Mitt Romney would have launched such an operation. Such a stance is churlish and un-becoming the office of the presidency. Strategically it makes no sense; this is a campaign message by the President of the United States and he should not need to engage his as yet un-anointed opponent in such a broadcast.

The Obama campaign’s actions have actually granted Mitt Romney the opportunity to appear gracious and generous in his response. Speaking alongside former Mayor Ruddy Giuliani in New York, the presumptive Republican candidate spoke yesterday of his admiration for ALL concerned with the raid that killed bin Laden, including President Obama, but also the SEAL Team 6, the CIA etc. Vitally he noted the strategic error that the Obama campaign had made: “I think politicizing it and trying to draw a distinction between himself and myself was an inappropriate use of the very important event that brought America together,” Romney said. It was, perhaps, the most presidential that Romney has sounded on the campaign so far.

With the campaign season in America about to move into high gear, we can expect to see far more of these commercials, advocating one candidate or another. The Romney campaign has proved to be the masters of attack ads during the Republican primary season. The Obama campaign would be wise to note that the best American political ads have not needed to highlight the apparent flaws in an opponent, but merely to advance the unifying qualities of their own candidate to inspire the very sense of hope and calm that is required in national leadership. The Obama campaign must devise a better, more bi-partisan way of doing this if it is to avoid falling prey to the inevitable attack ads that have so far proved to be so successful for Mitt Romney.

A version of this article first appeared on The Commentator.

I was asked to appear on Sky News to discuss the President’s activities this week, I hope you enjoy my comments:

JDB and Sky News

As some of you may have seen, I was on Sky News this morning, discussing President Obama’s trip to Europe. The conversation concentrated on his initial stop-over in Eire, where he will apparently revel in his Irish ancestry. I must admit that one doesn’t really look at Obama and immediately think of the Emerald Isle, but I guess that he is just the latest in a long line of president’s claiming Irish ancestry to bolster their domestic standing with the Irish community in the United States.

I seem to remember when Obama used to be from Kenya and Hawaii? Apparently that was soooo yesterday! I know he campaigned on a platform of ‘Change’ but I didn’t think that changing his ancestry was what he had in mind.

In London from Tuesday, Obama will hold meetings at Downing Street with the PM David Cameron to discuss Afghanistan and UK/US foreign policy. Doubtless to say questions of the Special Relationship will come up, along with issues pertaining to the demise of Osama bin Laden.

Obama will be staying as a guest of Her Majesty the Queen and will also address both houses of Parliament. A press briefing is expected at the FCO. The president will be accompanied by Secretary of State Clinton who is expected to hold meetings with her opposite number, William Hague.

Suffice to say, getting around central London may be a little tricky with the heightened security this week!

I will be returning to the airwaves through the week as the president spends his State Visit here in London, so watch this space for more news.

Obama’s Egyptian Dilemma

Fifty-five years ago, the United States thwarted an effort by the British, French and Israelis to secure the Suez Canal and topple an Egyptian dictator. So here we are once more, face to face with the great dilemma in American foreign policy. People seek change and an end to undemocratic rule. The leadership, desperate to cling on to power, put tanks on the street and attempt to clamp down on the mass protests. Where does America stand? As a nation born of revolution against a perceived tyrannical empire, its natural inclination is to support the masses, but as a global hegemony, it has an interest in a balance of power and fears a domino effect that could have wider and longer lasting impacts than could be perceived by the protesters on the streets.

The scenes in Egypt are alarming for so many reasons. That they follow hot on the heels of the events in Tunisia indicate that in an increasingly interconnected world, the masses will be inspired to take events into their own hands if they see the potential for change. Clearly, change has come to Tunisia. For Egypt to fall to similar tensions would be a seismic shift that should send warning signals to all nations in the region. Uncertainty is the great fear of all diplomats, who seek stability and peaceful evolutionary change, if indeed change is necessary.

Ironically, of course, ‘regime change’ was the ambition of the George W. Bush Administration, but focused on Iraq, certainly not Egypt, a nation that the US sees as a major ally in the middles east, supplying it with billions of dollars in aid and military hardware. Since the Camp David Accords Egypt has been seen as the model ally in the Middle East and vitally the first Arab nation to make peace with Israel. First Sadat and then Mubarak proved to be strong leaders capable of leading Egypt with an iron fist, albeit wrapped in a velvet glove for western consumption, surviving on a mix of tourism and US aid.

America’s great fear is what comes next: The greatest fear must be a repeat of the fall of the Shah and the rise of a theocracy, either directly or as the result of knee-jerk elections. At present this appears unlikely and the benefit to the Mubarak regime is that the protests do not appear to be coalescing around a single opposition figure. For those in Washington attempting to brief the president, the logical figure may well be Elbaradei, former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Placed under house arrest this afternoon, he may well be the one figure who could be acceptable to Washington, would signify change in Egypt and prevent the rise of more radical elements that would threaten Egypt’s standing in the west.

Reports say the military and the police are clashing and may appear to be refusing to clamp down on the protests. If Mubarak looses the military, it would appear to be all over for his regime and for his hopes to be succeeded by his son. The longer the situation goes without an appearance from Mubarak, the more isolated and removed he will appear and in such a fluid situation, perception is more important than ever.

Flights into Egypt are starting to be suspended, the Internet is being restricted and the military appears to be on the brink…For the United States, for President Obama and for the Middle East, a great deal is at stake tonight. Get it right, and a new movement for democratic change could be nurtured into existence in a series of nations. Get it wrong, and the entire region could descend into a tinderbox of strife as a new generation seek to redefine the region on their own terms, with or without American approval. The risks therefore extend to the United States and to its place in the world.

The failure of the British to succeed in what became the Suez Canal Crisis ended its aspirations to a continued empire and to the downfall of a British Prime Minister. At the White House, Obama’s in initial statement was a clear example of equivocation. Unusually it is the State Department, headed by Hillary Clinton that has come out with stronger language. If Obama appears impotent or unsure, or hesitant, he will be personally damaged on the world stage. Worse, his actions or any perceived timidity risk the long-term hegemony of the United States. I wonder how all this looks from the vantage point of Beijing?

How will D.C. be received in DC?

With the new British government now having issued its much vaunted Emergency Budget, eyes will no doubt start to turn towards the Prime Minister’s imminent visit to Washington to meet President Obama. The first visit by the PM to the White House is always an important event and this will prove to be no exception.

The meeting comes at a delicate time for UK/US relations. With troops serving together in Afghanistan the room for disagreement is slender, yet focus will no doubt be concentrated upon any potential rift caused by the BP oil disaster.

The media will no doubt be looking for any sign of division caused by the events in the Gulf of Mexico, the may even go so far as to stress division where none exists. What they will miss, no doubt, is the change in fortune that the Conservatives are experiencing in Washington and the implications that this may have for the Special Relationship.

It is standard diplomatic practice for the American president to grant an audience to the Leader of the Opposition. Even Ronald Reagan extended this courtesy to Neil Kinnock despite his obvious (and stated) support for Prime Minister Thatcher. Recent events have been somewhat more problematic, however. William Hague met George W. Bush in Crawford, Texas, prior to the election of 2000, but one wonders if the Texan governor thought that perhaps he was due to see former Secretary of State Al Hague?

In the years that followed the debacle of 2000 the leaders of Her Majesties’ loyal opposition were effectively given the cold shoulder in DC, so close was Bush to Blair. Michael Howard was considered persona non grata in Washington following his calls for Blair’s resignation and Ian Duncan Smith failed to make an impression in his 2002 visit.

Of course it is also true that the Conservatives have sought to gain access whilst still maintaining a low profile. David Cameron met Bush at the White House in a meeting in 2007, but images are hard to come by. Clearly there was a desire to be received in official Washington, but less of a desire to distribute images of Cameron with an unpopular president. Cameron’s visit in 2007 followed a 5 year absence from Washington for a leader of the Conservative Party, the longest since the advent of the jet engine.

When Prime Minster David Cameron returns to DC he will do so in a very different capacity and with a very different occupant of the White House. Barack Obama was the first foreign leader to congratulate Cameron upon becoming PM and the Foreign Secretary’s first overseas foray was to Washington and a meeting with Hillary Clinton.  This meeting was important as it presented the opportunity to reset official relations between London and Washington that has been waning for several years.

When Gorden Brown became PM he was eager not to become tainted by his relationship with George W. Bush, whose time in the White House was drawing to a close. Accordingly, Brown set a very different tone for the Special Relationship than had Tony Blair. However, it would appear that President Obama adopted a similar stance to Gordon Brown, not wishing to be seen as being to close to an unpopular British PM who was rightly expected to lose office at the earliest possible occasion.

With the departure of Brown and Bush and the emergence of Obama and Cameron, therefore, the slate has effectively been wiped clean, allowing for a new era in Transatlantic ties. Having met previously on Senator Obama’s trip to London in 2008, the PM will be eager to forge a new working relationship that is businesslike and balanced, avoiding the pitfalls that Blair fell into time and again for pandering to the White House with little or no derived benefit.

The Special Relationship is about far more than the chemistry between the two leaders, but when so much attention is focused upon their dealings, it has a disproportionate impact upon all other elements; politically, culturally and militarily. With this trip, the PM will be well placed to begin a new and positive era in US-UK relations and to put to rest overblown tales of Obama rejecting a bust of Churchill (which had only been lent to the Bush White House as W. was a known admirer) and of DVD gift sets. The past can be overcome. How the BP situation is dealt with, may well be another question…