With friends like Bill Clinton, President Obama hardly needs enemies.
In the middle of a crisis in his Presidency, with former supporters and allies joining critics in questioning his character, judgment, courage and leadership, Obama turned to a former president for counsel, just as many Chief Executives before him have done when the wolf was at the door. William Jefferson Clinton, however is nothing if not a hound for attention, and while Obama struggles with the mantle of leadership, Clinton is especially comfy in it. Thus when what was supposed to be a White House brief photo-op for the press gave Clinton a clear path to an open mike, he grabbed it, and promptly made look weaker than ever. As the Washington Post described the scene:
“After brief remarks by Obama, Clinton slid behind the lectern as if he’d never left the building. For a time it looked like he might never leave, as he fielded questions from a White House press corps eager to keep him as long as it could. He stroked his chin. He folded his arms and looked pensive. He gesticulated expansively. He was part professor and full politician enjoying the spotlight.
“After a few minutes, Obama seemed to conclude that he would be better served by being out of the picture than as a bystander. “I’ve been keeping the first lady waiting for about half an hour, so I’m going to take off,” he said. Clinton responded, “Well, I – I don’t want to make her mad. Please go.”
“And with that, Clinton had the stage to himself.”
He just couldn’t help himself. Or, knowing how devious Clinton can be, perhaps he fully intended to show up Obama. In either case, the conduct displayed both his complete mastery of the tools of public influence and political power—no surprises there—and also his lack respect for others who have placed their trust in him, and his deficits in self-restraint, generosity, and consideration.
No surprises there, either.
Commentators on both the Left and the Right reacted to the scene predictably and accurately. Clinton was showing Obama how it is done. Clinton was so comfortable in the spotlight, while Obama is often so distant. Clinton was Kirk to Obama’s Spock, the sensei to Obama’s student, the Rock Star to the Professor. Whatever metaphor used, they were right. I’m sure Clinton loved all of the accounts, and I’m sure Obama was left gnashing his teeth. If he wasn’t, he should have been. He trusted Clinton to give him some tips, and instead Clinton took him to school..in public.
We all know, or should, that this most publicly caring of politicians has no consideration for others when his own craving for ego-gratification is in play. Had he had any respect for Obama at all, or proper concern for the welfare of the nation, which, Rush Limbaugh to the contrary, does not need another failed presidency, Clinton would have made a two-sentence comment and stepped away, leaving no doubt that Obama was the boss. He absolutely had an obligation to cut his remarks short when Obama hinted that it was time to go. And yes, if Barack Obama had an inkling of how to look like a leader and inspire confidence, he would have known never, never, ever to leave with Bill Clinton at a microphone, speaking with the press. After two years, Obama’s leadership instincts are getting worse, not better. Still, Clinton was not there to highlight this unhappy shortcoming.
Ronald Reagan knew that he would always over-shadow his successor, the verbally and charisma-challenged George H.W. Bush, so he made certain never to make extended public appearances where he would remind the public how well Ronnie could play the role of President, and how much the current president resembled the colorless lifetime bureaucrat he was. That was the mature, kind, responsible choice, and what was best for the nation as well. Usually a President has the sense not to give their more popular and skilled predecessors an opportunity to hurt them. President Taft never let his former buddy Teddy Roosevelt get on a podium with him, it is a fair guess that political whiz Martin Van Buren was shrewd enough to ask the iconic Andy Jackson to stay away when Van Buren was in power, and neither of these flawed leaders had to worry about television. Clinton should have known Obama had put himself at risk, and he if he cared about any one or any thing but Bill Clinton, he would have helped the President out by not exploiting the situation.
He just couldn’t, or wouldn’t, do it.