President Clinton: 'There's Very Little Talk About What Actually Works'

Nov 7, 2011
Originally published on November 8, 2011 7:44 am

As he listens to the current debate in Washington over the budget deficit, taxes and economic policy, former President Bill Clinton says the discussion lacks a lot.

"It's all about 'is the government good or bad or taxes always good or bad?' " he told Morning Edition co-host Steve Inskeep during an conversation that's scheduled to air Tuesday. "There's very little talk about what actually works."

That's why Clinton has a new book — Back to Work — with this subtitle: Why We Need Smart Government for a Strong Economy.

It's a book, as USA Today writes, with "a few dozen ideas ... about ways large and small to get unemployed Americans back to work — from granting property tax breaks for investments that create jobs to painting every flat tar roof in U.S. cities white for the energy savings."

The Washington Post says that Clinton also writes in the book that the Democrat in the White House now, President Obama, has made at least two mistakes in recent years.

"First," the Post says, "was not raising the federal debt ceiling in the first two years of the president's term, when Democrats still had a majority in Congress, and then failing to devise an effective national campaign message during the midterm elections of 2010. Clinton also suggests, obliquely, that Obama's criticism of Wall Street has been too harsh and counterproductive."

The former president told Steve that Republicans have been very effective at pinning the "tax and spend liberal" label on Obama — just as they did to him.

"They're good — the other guys," Clinton said. "The Republicans are good. They're good at this. They're good at labeling you. What I would say to you is I think he [Obama] has presented balanced plans."

Much more from Steve's conversation with Clinton is due on tomorrow's broadcast. Click here to find an NPR station that broadcasts or streams the show. Later, we'll add the as-aired version of the interview to the top of this post.

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In December of last year, President Obama received a visitor at the White House. Former President Bill Clinton came by to talk just after Democrats were pounded in midterm elections.


In a memorable moment, Clinton dropped by the White House press room. He settled in behind the lectern, talking economic policy as if he'd never left. Now Clinton has put some of his views into a book called "Back to Work." When we sat down in Washington, he said it was important to refocus the economic debate.

PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: I think a lot of this debate in Washington is kind of off the subject. It's all about is the government good or bad, are taxes always good or bad, and there's very little talk about what actually works. And I also thought it was important because after the 2010 election, where I was out there and I did over 130 events, people kept coming up to me right until the night before the election saying, why didn't I know this, why didn't I know that.

INSKEEP: You mentioned the 2010 election. You write that you urged Democrats to take a particular course in 2010 and you don't feel that they listened to you.

CLINTON: Yeah, but it was not so much on the substance. It was the - I just assumed that they would do what had helped them in 1998, in 2002, in 2006. And we abandoned what we had done then, which was running on three or four specific things for the future and advertising that in common. And in this case, because they had the majority again for the first time since '94, explaining what they had done. And I believe it was a tactical error, which cost us several seats. I think we'd have taken a big whipping regardless. But I felt that if voters had known more about what actually had been done and what the two parties' alternative positions were, we'd have done better.

INSKEEP: Although you're touching on something that maybe is important to underline about your party. Your party had terrible trouble agreeing on healthcare, has had terrible trouble agreeing on issues like taxes. You wanted them to be unified with a single message in 2010, and Democrats didn't prove able to do that, as you say.

CLINTON: Yeah, but on health care what they could have done - and they could have done what Heath Shuler did in a very conservative district in North Carolina, where he voted against the health care bill because he didn't like the small business reporting requirements, which were changed with a bipartisan majority. But he said it'd be wrong to repeal them, because if we repeal them, we'll affect millions of family who now cover their children up to age 26. And that should have been what the Democrats said. It's not a perfect bill but it's a good beginning and we will, when the problems are presented, we'll fix them. I just was trying to explain how we got what I thought was an extra big margin because we didn't have a national message - and the same thing happened, by the way, when I was president. I'm not throwing stones here. It happened to us in '94, almost the same thing for almost the same reasons. The American people have always had a debate, as I explain in this book, about government. They feel ambivalent about it. We were born in reaction to abusive power. So we always don't want too much government but we want enough. And how much is enough and how much is too much is the source of the debate. But if you don't weigh in on the debate, you risk getting wiped out, and that's basically what happened to us in '94 and then again in 2010.

INSKEEP: Well, let me ask you about one of the substantive proposals that you make. You spend quite a number of pages talking about ways to fix the mortgage mess in this country. What does it say that almost three years into this administration, during the entire time, which, of course, the mortgage problem has been known, that you're still having to make proposals about it?

CLINTON: Well, first of all, to be fair, I'm not entirely sure that in the beginning everyone knew that once the banks were bailed out there still wouldn't be any resumption of regular lending, in the beginning. This, after all, this particular combination of things had not happened to us. The administration has had programs to help rewrite mortgages, and the two of them together have helped about million and three-quarters people. But the mortgage crisis kept getting worse and worse and worse, and before President Obama came in, before - when Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were bailed out, they were put explicitly under a federal overseer who's supposed to maximize the value of their assets. So the White House has no direct control over them, and they have been very reluctant to write down mortgages, to refinance them at lower interest rates. But I don't fault the administration. This whole thing is very murky and very complex, but I tried to make it simple and make an argument for why everybody would be better off if we deleveraged and flushed this bad mortgage debt quicker; then the banks will start to loan money again.

INSKEEP: Do you think this is a well-managed White House?

CLINTON: Seems to me it is. I mean, I don't know why it wouldn't be.

INSKEEP: Well, here's one reason that I bring that up. Ron Suskind had a much-publicized book which quoted a number of members of the administration critiquing the management of the White House, and a number of them were former Clinton administration officials who said it's not as good as it was then.

CLINTON: Well, look, I just can't comment on it, 'cause I know that everybody's got different perspectives and they come at it from different ways. You know, Bob Rubin once told me that he thought we had the best decision-making process he'd ever been involved in. At the same time, I was being killed in the press because people said I was too involved in the weeds and I stayed too long in meetings and we all - my position was we had for that time an unprecedented economic problem and we were taking a risky strategy trying to address it in a different way. And also because we were going to have to make big budget cuts, I wanted to know what the practical impact on real people of every one of those budget cuts was. Rubin thought it was a great decision-making process.

INSKEEP: Your Treasury secretary.

CLINTON: Yeah. When he was there - he was then the national economic adviser. But the conventional wisdom in Washington was it was too free form, too free flowing, you know. So I've been criticized - and therefore I just don't know enough about it to say anything other than I said.

INSKEEP: Your administration was known politically for seeking to reposition the Democratic Party, not get stuck as being defined as tax-and-spend liberals. President Obama also was seen as trying to take the party in a new direction but ended telling an interviewer last year that he had been tagged as another tax-and-spend liberal. How'd that happen to him?

CLINTON: Same way it happened to me. They're good, the other guys. I mean, the Republicans are good. They're good at this. They're good at labeling you. And what I would say to you is I think he has presented balanced plans. If you look at this jobs plan, which I talk about in real detail in the book, several of the ideas, including the payroll tax cuts, in the president's plan, were first proposed by Republicans who now oppose them, probably just because he's for them. The president plainly has bent over backwards to try to cooperate with them, and still wants to. And I think that's the right position. He plainly is not willing to give up some things he believes in, and I think that's the right position.

INSKEEP: Mr. President, thanks for your time.

CLINTON: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Bill Clinton's new book is called "Back to Work." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.