Obama and Bill Clinton: Frenemies

Salena Zito
|
Posted: Jun 13, 2010 12:01 AM
Obama and Bill Clinton: Frenemies

If you’re keeping score of who is better at getting Democrats elected this cycle, President Obama is 0-for-4 while former president Bill Clinton is golden at 2-for-2.

Last fall’s gubernatorial races in New Jersey and Virginia, and this year’s U.S. Senate races in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, proved Obama impotent at influencing voters.

Rush Limbaugh

Conversely, Clinton’s performances for Democrat Mark Critz in last month’s special election to replace the late U.S. Rep. Jack Murtha, D-Pa., and for U.S. Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., in her squeaker of a primary last week, were nothing short of brilliant.

Villanova University political science professor Lara Brown says the Obama-Clinton relationship “is complicated. Both are politicians of enormous stature whose reputations are made daily in the competitive and constantly changing world of politics.”

Their relationship is not unlike that between the dollar and gold: While the valuations of each change daily and the connections are not always evident, they almost always trend in opposite directions.

In an election year full of disconnect between Main Street and Washington, each man symbolizes specific constituencies with different visions of their party.

Clinton represents the common-man, blue-collar-worker middle class – those who work hard and play by the rules, who view themselves as fighters who dig in and don't give up.

“Clinton also represents the pragmatic side of politics,” Brown said, “the side which does not adhere to ideological tenets, the side that is interested in winning.”

Clinton can be clumsy, not cool (although he liked to think he was just like Elvis, playing his saxophone on the Arsenio Hall Show in 1992). According to Brown, that is “part of why many Americans feel like they can relate to him.”

Obama represents the party’s intellectual elite and ideological progressives. He is a cool hipster who knows about technology. (Remember, this is the guy who did not want to give up his Blackberry when he became president, despite security concerns.)

He is intellectually sophisticated and likes to surround himself with those at the cutting edge of cultural trends: musicians, artists, technology whiz-kids. He eats arugula, drinks Chablis, and has “date nights” in trendy D.C. restaurants.

Clinton is all about the heart and emotion; Obama seems to be about the brain and intellect.

No one ever doubted Clinton's intelligence but some did wonder about his appetite and his seeming inability to set limits on himself.

Obama seems all about setting limits: He exercises regularly, never gets too high or low, and doesn't seem to like emotional expression. He believes it is better to be discerning and rational than reflexive and, perhaps, impulsive.

He represents Democrats who believe in Thomas Frank's thesis that “there is something the matter with Kansas.” In other words, people in Kansas (read: “mostly rural people”) are not educated enough to understand their own rational self-interest and are too emotionally attached to their guns and their religion.

“That side of the party believes that people on Main Street are kept back by their ignorance and that the job of the Democratic elite is to ‘enlighten’ them as to what would really make their lives better,” Brown explains.

Clinton’s beliefs are quite the opposite, she says, and are similar to what makes Republican Sarah Palin resonate: “He believes that some of America's greatest wisdom and strongest spirit comes from those people who do wrestle with the joys and hardships of everyday life in ways that the intellectual elite believe are too mundane … to be meaningful.”

Obama's is the "coastal" part of the party – the secular, educated, wealthier side that, despite its ardent belief in helping others, rests on a noblesse oblige service-ethic towards those less fortunate.

Clinton's is the "fly-over" part of the party – the religious, hard-working, more middle-class side that believes in pulling oneself up by one's bootstraps with help, not a handout, from government.

If Obama passes off to Clinton the job of helping Democrats in the midterm elections (either because he is too busy or too unpopular in certain districts), then those Democrats may not be so willing to help him in 2012.

“Obama is eventually hurting Obama by employing Clinton to be his partisan wrangler in this election,” Brown said.

Clinton, however, doesn't lose a thing: The more he helps Democrats, and the more successful they are, the more they will carry on his vision and his political legacy.