Column: Building a better president
By Ruth Marcus
WASHINGTON — If only some mad (political?) scientist could build a creature combining Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.
Frankenstein, meet Obamaton, except this version would be an improvement on the originals. With the best attributes of each, you could create the near-perfect president.
The two Democratic presidents have a famously fraught relationship, as Mark Halperin and John Heilemann remind us in “Double Down,” their book on the 2012 campaign. That the golf-loving Obama could not make it through a full 18 holes with his golf-loving predecessor says it all.
Obama reported to aides, of Clinton, “I like him ... in doses.” Clinton considered Obama luckier than an anatomically improbable dog.
The club of presidents is small and often chummy, but there is an inevitable element of elbow-jabbing competitiveness among its members, especially those of the same party. With Obama and Clinton, those frictions are magnified by the essential personality differences between the two men. Like pieces of an improbable jigsaw puzzle, one president’s strength is the other’s weakness.
There are similarities, expected and surprising. Both presidents are the self-made products of determined single mothers. Both are smart, analytical, immersed in the details of policy. The notion of Obama as a bystander president reliant on the teleprompter for his talking points is nonsense.
Yet Obama is disciplined and self-contained where Clinton is free-form and sprawling. Obama is a man who waves away dessert; until recently, at least, Clinton never saw a Big Mac he wasn’t tempted to eat off your plate. Obama is clipped and cool, Clinton hot-tempered and prone to public rages.
But the downside of discipline is insularity. Obama is aloof; Clinton is the ultimate extrovert, a sponge for people and the adulation that accompanies them. Obama finds relationship-building tedious; Clinton revels in it. The man never saw a rope line he didn’t want to work. Obama’s dream outing would be to browse about a bookstore unmolested; Clinton’s (the PG-rated version, anyway) an all-night game of hearts.
Clinton feels your pain — and the public knew it. Obama, with rare exceptions (think Sandy Hook), feels no pain, at least that he lets on. Obama surfs the Internet. Clinton worked the phones, gathering human intelligence, forging human connections. Yet Clinton also had his Slick Willie side, leaving voters and politicians alike convinced that he saw things their way, even if they ultimately ended up feeling disappointed and betrayed.
Clinton is the ultimate, bred-in-the-bone political animal. Although Obama is reported to have told his third-grade teacher in Indonesia that he wanted to be president, “The rest of his adolescence offered none of the signs of oversize yearning that were so readily apparent in some other boys who grew up to be president, most notably Billy Clinton,” David Maraniss writes in his biography of Obama. Clinton is the constant maneuverer who managed to score the handshake photo with John F. Kennedy; Obama is the laid-back observer.
Even in office, as the head of his party, Obama remains, for better and worse, remarkably removed from the political fray. Clinton was immersed in it, down to the precinct level. “Ready to start overnights right away” in the Lincoln Bedroom, Clinton eagerly scrawled on a memo about perks for mega-donors. Obama, according to “Double Down,” had to ask campaign manager Jim Messina who one of his top bundlers was.
So what would Dr. Frankenstein concoct out of these two presidents? One with the control and focus of Obama, who would have avoided the twin Clintonian scandals of personal misbehavior and fundraising excesses. One with Clinton’s relentless drive and remarkable capacity to connect with others, even political opponents, but without the smoked-but-didn’t-inhale, depends-what-the-meaning-of-is-is truth-trimming.
One with Clinton’s far greater experience in public policy and executive office — although it must be said that Clinton was the reform president who frittered away the chance to pass health care reform and Obama is the relative ingenue who accomplished that elusive task.
Would Clinton have done a better job than Obama at managing the mammoth task of overseeing the implementation of health care reform?
You could argue that Clinton, with his longer steeping in policy details, relentless curiosity and constant outreach, would have been better positioned to discern the distant footsteps of the impending debacle. Then again, you could remember the disastrous, behind-closed-doors creation of the Rube Goldberg contraption that was Hillarycare.
Which is why I said near-perfect president at the start. And why, despite the fevered imaginings of columnists, no real-life president can come close to that ideal.
Ruth Marcus’ email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.