It’s not too surprising that the financial crisis has triggered a timely political windfall for Barack Obama, whose poll numbers have steadily climbed since the magnitude of Wall Street’s collapse became clear just over a week ago. When campaigns are defined by economic unease, Democrats tend to benefit – especially when it’s the Republicans who’ve run the White House for the eight previous years.
But the crisis has been timely in another way for Obama, because it has drowned out what otherwise might have been an unhelpful development: The re-emergence of Bill Clinton.
Officially, the former president has been making the media rounds for the same reason he always does every September, to promote his annual Clinton Global Initiative conference, which is held in conjunction with U.N. Week in New York. But in the context of the current election, that’s just window dressing. None of the media figures who’ve interviewed Clinton in the past two weeks have shown more than an obligatory interest in his humanitarian efforts, and have instead packed their sessions with as many questions as possible about the Obama-John McCain race.
Too often, from the Obama perspective, Clinton has provided responses that only reinforce doubts about the nature of his support for Obama and whether he’s actually pursuing some multilayered sabotage scheme – offering heaping praise for Obama in one appearance only to wink to his wife’s embittered primary supporters in the next one – aimed at ensuring an open Democratic nomination in 2012.
Two Thursdays ago, Clinton used a CNBC appearance to salute McCain as “a great man” and to call his running-mate, the increasingly polarizing Sarah Palin, “an instinctively effective candidate.” He reiterated those kind words for McCain (and added a few new ones) on David Letterman’s “Late Show” the next Monday, and also made a point of praising his wife’s own prescriptions for the financial crisis (as opposed to promoting Obama’s). Clinton seemed so reluctant to mention Obama that Chris Rock, who followed Clinton on the show, opened his segment by telling Letterman: “Is it me, or did he not want to say the words ‘Barack Obama?’ Hillary ain’t running! One of those guys needs to tell him.”
Then there was his taped appearance on Sunday’s “Meet the Press,” which may have been a thank-you to host Tom Brokaw, who moderated a panel at Clinton’s New York conference last week (which was broadcast live by MSNBC).
Asked by Brokaw if he believes that Obama, like McCain, is “a great man,” Clinton said that he’d only had one meaningful conversation with Obama ever and then offered this bit of backhanded approbation: “I know he saw and imagined the way this thing could develop – this political year and this economic situation— in a way that has left him in the position of leadership that he’s in now.” In other words, when asked if Obama was a great man, Clinton replied that he’s a good politician.
And when Brokaw turned to Hillary Clinton’s presence on the fall campaign trail for Obama, Clinton insisted that “I don’t think that anybody in 40 years who’s been in a race like this has done as much for the nominee” – a defensive formulation that he has been trotting out for years on all sorts of subjects.
Clinton’s defenders argue that his words are being parsed too cynically – that questions about his commitment to Obama were never warranted in the first place and that he put them to rest with his rousing convention speech at the end of August. Of course, there’s plenty of reason to challenge this: It was Clinton, after all, who earlier in the summer refused to endorse Obama’s readiness to assume the presidency in a network television interview. The more skeptical view is that Clinton is doing enough so that he can claim after the election that he was there for Obama – while undermining him just enough so that he can’t win.
The truth about Clinton’s motives is probably somewhere in the middle. Clinton’s kind personal words for McCain, for example, are undoubtedly genuine, plus it is possible that he believes acknowledging McCain’s admirable personal traits is smart politics. After all, like Obama this year, Clinton in 1996 ran against a decorated war hero who made his service and self-sacrifice the centerpiece of his campaign – Bob Dole. And in that race, Clinton consistently acknowledged Dole’s character, making it clear that his only gripe was with his opponent’s ideas. (In fact, a few months after the ’96 campaign, Clinton actually awarded Dole with the presidential Medal of Freedom.)
At the same time, Clinton has made it quite clear that he still has scores to settle from the primary season. (In the same interview in which he discussed Obama’s readiness to lead, he also threatened to air some specific grievances after the November election.) Plus, it’s simply undeniable that Hillary Clinton and her White House hopes would be a major beneficiary if Obama were to lose in November – and Bill Clinton is notorious for earnestly denying political motives, even while earning a reputation as the country’s preeminent political animal. His own history invites all of the skepticism that he’s faced lately.
All of this could have been very problematic for Obama. Two weeks ago, the race was dead even and McCain, still riding an energizing post-convention wave, was on the offensive. Ordinarily, Clinton’s media tour would have dominated the news – reopening Democratic primary season wounds and re-raising all of the familiar questions about Obama’s difficulties in winning over Hillary Clinton voters. But then came the Wall Street collapse, the heated Congressional debate over a bailout, and the drama of the first presidential debate. Against that backdrop, Bill Clinton still made news – but his words haven’t resonated like they otherwise would have.
And now, Clinton’s conference – and the media attention that went with it – is over. For Barack Obama, it could have been a lot worse.