That particular nightmare was, to be sure, part of a broader and deeper facet of Obama’s time in office: the entrenched, determined, often wild-eyed opposition to, and demonization of, the president by his enemies. Looking back on Clinton’s bi-partisan proclivities when she was in the Senate, it’s tempting to think she might have had more success at finding a functional modus vivendi with Republicans. Yet that thought is rooted in selective amnesia, in forgetting the extremity of the animus that the right has always harbored toward Hillary—which is now at bay, I suspect, because she is a comfortable distance from the Oval Office. If she occupied that real estate, the intransigence and nastiness would have had a different cast (no birthers, no posters of HRC with a bone through her nose), but would’ve been no less intense.
For Hillary, then, advancing similar policies in a similar macroeconomic and partisan environment would surely have meant that her first two years would have been no less rocky than Obama’s. The question is how she would have managed the political fallout from all that—a question that brings us back to her husband, who would have been her chief political counselor in the White House and is now, in a roundabout way, trying to provide the same sort of services to Obama.
More than once in recent weeks, 42 has noted that he feels “extremely sympathetic” toward 44’s predicament. But that sympathy is laced with a sharp frustration at the way Obama has let the politics of the moment get away from him. In Clinton’s view, the president and his team were for too long blind to the loss of support that they and their party were suffering among independent voters, and have failed miserably at fashioning an argument to remedy the problem. Such an argument would confront concerns over the federal deficit head-on; it would point out Republican hypocrisy about big spending and big government, while laying out an explanation of how Obama’s programs and orientation don’t fit the caricature that Republicans have used to undermine them—that, as Clinton put it in an interview with Politico, Obama is guilty of “overreach that is trying to crush the spirit of enterprise and individual initiative, and basically turn America into some European social democracy.”
Though Clinton’s speech in Brooklyn was brief by his standards, just 25 minutes long, it deftly managed to accomplish all of that. Chockablock with statistics, it pinned responsibility for the nation’s fiscal woes squarely on the profligacy of Republicans. Rather than denigrating the tea party, Clinton declared that he shared its point of view, then offered a 30-year history lesson to support his claim that “if they want to reduce the size of government, they should be supporting Democrats, because we know how to do it.”
Would Hillary have been so dexterous if she were president right now? There is ample reason to think not. Her weaknesses when it comes to the art of politics are abundant and well known, not least by her spouse. And to be fair, Bill Clinton himself wasn’t always a master at wooing independent voters or convincing the electorate writ large of his commitment to governmental restraint; it was his manifest failure to do so that led to the GOP rout in 1994.
But two hallmarks of both Clintons through the years have been adaptability and resilience. Like all the greatest politicians, they have repeatedly been knocked on their asses but have figured out how to stand back up, regain their footing, and make lemonade—hard lemonade—out of the lemons with which voters had pelted them.
Will Obama be able to muster the same sort of pliancy and pluck? Unless almost every available poll and credible prognostication turns out to be wrong, that will be the $64 million question come November 3. During the campaign, the Clintons believed that Obama could not take a punch—and he proved them wrong. But the blows he withstood then were nothing like the one that is about to land on his jaw. Democrats had better hope that when it does, he is tougher than the Clintons thought. And that now that they are in his corner, he’ll have the good sense to ask their help and follow their example in climbing up off the mat.