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Obama and Clinton

I admit, one upcoming speech in Charlotte that I have exceptionally little interest in is former President Bill Clinton’s. I don’t miss the sound of his voice, and I’m pretty sure I know what he will say. I expect Clinton to praise himself, and praise Obama primarily for carrying on his legacy, and to be most effective at laying into Republicans. I don’t expect him to surprise me. And any “reconciliation” between Obama and Clinton is thoroughly phony.

Barack Obama and Bill Clinton are almost opposites in terms of political personality. Clinton is warm; Obama is cold. Clinton can’t get himself out of the picture – he has to stick his nose into everything, make every conversation about him. Obama frequently can’t get himself into the picture – finds himself bored and disengaged. Clinton was a consummate small-picture guy, deeply invested in the details of legislation, the master of the micro-initiative. Obama thinks of himself as a big-picture guy, focused on one or two main goals, willing to delegate the rest (though I sometimes question the ultimate coherence of that “big picture”). Like most politicians, they both have monumental egos, but they manifest themselves differently. Obama brags excessively about his golf game, but Clinton cheats.

Nonetheless, I think the much-ballyhooed distinction between Obama and Clinton relates mostly to style and personality – and to political circumstance. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama both led Wall Street-friendly administrations with centrist economic policies. Both made health care reform the signature initiative of their first terms. Both took an expansive, liberal internationalist line in foreign policy. Bill Clinton tacked decidedly to the right on social issues, while Barack Obama has tacked to the left – but that, I suspect, reflects the different political circumstances of their tenures more than it does their personal preferences. Similarly, Obama has been far more focused in his approach to foreign affairs than Clinton was – but that reflects not only personal preference but the very different world situations they inherited.

Clinton’s laying-on-of-hands will be heavy on reminders of how good the economy was during his tenure, but this is just the Democratic counterpart to the ludicrous Republican nostalgiafest in Tampa. Barack Obama inherited a wildly different set of political and economic circumstances than Bill Clinton did – or than Ronald Reagan did in 1980. There’s no particular reason to believe that there’s some Clintonian “formula” for prosperity any more than there is to believe there’s a Reaganite one.

If Clinton helps Obama, it’ll be marginally. The kinds of voters Clinton appealed to that Obama doesn’t are probably beyond Obama’s reach. But more to the point, nobody can close this kind of sale for you. President Obama needs to close this sale himself. As I’m sure he knows.

about the author

Noah Millman, senior editor, is an opinion journalist, critic, screenwriter, and filmmaker who joined The American Conservative in 2012. Prior to joining TAC, he was a regular blogger at The American Scene. Millman’s work has also appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Week, Politico, First Things, Commentary, and on The Economist’s online blogs. He lives in Brooklyn.

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