Bill Clinton's back, with a plan to help the economy

10:12 AM, Nov 7, 2011   |    comments
Former President Bill Clinton
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WASHINGTON - Bill Clinton has an idea.

A few dozen ideas, in fact, 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 former president also has some thoughts on the next steps the Occupy Wall Street movement should take, by the way.

And about whether President Obama will win re-election.

Clinton acknowledges that no modern president has won a second term when the jobless rate is as high as even White House economists predict it will be on Election Day 2012.

"Well, that's what the Republicans are banking on," he told USA TODAY. "But the American people have a funny way of figuring. If they decide that the unemployment rate is that high because the Congress refused to work with the president and their numbers remain markedly lower than his, he might win anyway. I still think he's in pretty good shape."

In his first published interview about his book Back to Work, Clinton is, well, classically Clintonesque as he discourses on politics and policy.

He presided over boom times and made an oft-repeated promise in his 1996 re-election campaign to build a bridge to the 21st century. Now the 21st century is here, and for many Americans that bridge seems to have led to a dead end that has cost millions of workers their jobs and a generation of young people their highest aspirations.

Clinton says he wrote the 196-page book in the space of a few months because he was dismayed by the hopelessness he heard as he made 130 campaign appearances across the country during the 2010 midterm campaign season. The subtitle is Why We Need Smart Government for a Strong Economy- a pushback against what he calls "30 years of bipolar, anti-government politics (that) have given us a severe case of collective attention deficit disorder."

As the only Democrat to win two terms in the White House since Franklin Roosevelt, William Jefferson Clinton retains considerable credibility when it comes to politics and economics.

"The purpose of this book is to say you're always better off doing something," he says. "When people are in trouble, action is better than inaction."

Is his message aimed at an audience of one - that is, at Obama?

White House efforts to pass a big jobs bill have been stymied. Only in recent weeks has Obama begun announcing the sort of small-scale executive actions on students loans and home mortgages that were a signature of Clinton's tenure.

Clinton, whose relationship with Obama has sometimes been sensitive, doesn't respond directly to the question.

First, he says Obama has done a better job than he's credited with in handling an economic catastrophe. "I don't want him to get discouraged," Clinton says. Then he quickly adds, "and it's obvious he's not."

The talking points

Still, it's clear that Clinton has been frustrated by the difficulty he has had in getting the White House to hear his advice, or at least with his failure to persuade leading Democrats to follow it.

Consider the case of the talking points.

In the closing days of the 2010 election, Clinton writes, "Vice President Biden... and I tried to get the Democratic National Committee to send out a centralized set of talking points to its large e-mail list so Democratic foot soldiers would at least have some good ammunition for their phone and door-to-door campaigns. We couldn't persuade the decision-makers to do so."

How could a vice president and former president fail to persuade party "decision-makers?"

"It was bizarre," Clinton says with exasperation. "Biden and I actually wrote these seven talking points," laying out what Democrats stood for and contrasting it with the Republican agenda.

"They said that House Democrats would just have to be on their own because they had too many differences on health care and climate change," he says. Senate Majority Leader "Harry Reid was fine about it. It was all about the differences in the House."

But Clinton argues that more united House Democrats than divided them. Even those who had voted against Obama's health care overhaul could argue they wanted to reform it, not repeal it. Even those who voted against the bill to address climate change could agree that Democrats believe in protecting the environment and encouraging new sources of energy.

The failure to make that argument with clarity cost some Democrats their seats, Clinton says - and perhaps even control of the House.

"If they had had an advertising campaign that talked about the differences (with the GOP) like we did in '98, in 2002 and 2006 ... I think they would have still lost 30 seats and saved enough to maintain a small majority in the House," he says. "I may be wrong, but that's what I think."

Instead, Democrats lost more than 60 House seats, the most for any party in a midterm election since 1938, giving Republicans control. The DNC and Biden's office declined to comment on Clinton's account.

Clinton sees parallels with his own disastrous first midterm election, in 1994, when Democrats lost control of the House and Senate.

"What really happened, in my opinion, in 2010 is what happened in 1994," he says. "People - they don't want too much government, but they want enough. If they think the Democrats are giving them too much, they'll vote for the Republicans to get a little less ... They looked at the stimulus and the financial rescue and the auto bailout and all that stuff that happened, and they said: 'A little too much; we want a little less.' "

In Clinton's time, Republicans led by then-House speaker Newt Gingrich overreached, leading to two government shutdowns and a public-relations disaster that wound up helping Clinton. The next five years were marked by bipartisan compromises that led to welfare reform and a balanced federal budget.

That sort of progress could happen again if the congressional "supercommittee" now trying to reach an accord on deficit reduction succeeds, he says. Its Nov. 23 deadline is looming.

"If they can reach an agreement that the president can sign, we may be into 1996 and afterward - that is, a period of real bipartisan cooperation, where the election can then unfold in an environment where the voters can decide in the races for the Congress and the Senate and the White House who's got the best ideas," Clinton says.

Unfortunately, there are few signs the supercommittee is making progress.

Could he help Obama in 2012?

The 42nd president is trim in a tailored navy blue suit, crisp white shirt and bright blue striped tie. He is strikingly thinner than he was during his tenure in the White House, the result of the heart-healthy vegan diet he now follows. (He had blueberries and a protein drink mixture for breakfast on this morning.) At 65, he looks older and less robust than when he was the dominant figure in American politics two decades ago.

Ranging far and wide, he defends Texas Gov. Rick Perry's support of in-state college tuition rates for illegal immigrants, not that his defense would help a Republican presidential contender. Clinton also urges fellow Democrats to "saddle up" on tough budget issues such as roping in Social Security and Medicare spending.

As he launches a publicity tour for his new book - he'll have a "conversation" about it Tuesday with daughter Chelsea at the New York Historical Society - some in the White House worry that the specter of an older, two-term president giving advice and sometimes criticizing Obama underscores the current president's struggles.

In his book, Clinton nicks Obama for not raising the federal debt ceiling in late 2010, when Democrats held both houses of Congress. (The White House says the votes weren't there in the Senate.)

In a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll taken in September, Americans were inclined to rate Obama as a better president than George W. Bush - but by nearly 5 to 1, they rated Clinton as a better president than Obama.

The relationship between the two men was contentious during the 2008 presidential primaries, when Clinton stumped for wife Hillary Rodham Clinton against Obama for the Democratic nomination.

After she joined Obama's Cabinet as secretary of State, their ties became closer - and more complicated.

In 2012, Clinton could be helpful, especially with the white, working-class voters in key industrial states such as Ohio and Michigan who haven't warmed to Obama. Clinton's ability to connect with audiences and his standing on the economy could help make the president's case.

"Perhaps no one is better positioned to remind America who and what policies created the fiscal mess President Obama inherited, as well as how empty the claim is that a balanced deficit-reduction plan with spending cuts and some high-income revenues will somehow be a 'job-killer,' " says Gene Sperling, once a top economic aide to Clinton and now a senior adviser to Obama.

"On our biggest economic issues - American Jobs Act, balanced deficit reduction that includes high-income revenues, and defending health care reform - he's way, way in our corner."

Clinton is free with advice for others as well.

Take the Occupy Wall Street movement that has held protests from New York to Oakland. "They have an amorphous set of resentments for which I sympathize," he says. "I don't think Americans can continue this level of income inequality."

But the protesters need an agenda, he says. "They need to have some idea of what they want the country to do. If I were in their position, I would invite politicians down to talk to them. I'd invite (New York) Gov. (Andrew) Cuomo down to talk to me. I'd invite the mayor down to talk to me in New York."

He likened their challenge to that faced by Arab Spring protesters in Tunisia and Egypt who brought down authoritarian governments but now need to connect with established networks.

He sees big challenges ahead for the USA as well. "We're in a mess now," he writes in the book. In the interview, he compares today's turmoil with an earlier period. "It has a disturbing feel like the bad recession we had at the end of the 19th century, when there was a lot of partisan discord."

The Panic of 1893, marked by bank and railroad failures that fueled social unrest and the Progressive Era, undermined Democratic President Grover Cleveland and led to 16 years of Republican control of the White House.

"But I still believe we can get out," Clinton says.

He has an idea how.

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Susan Page, USA TODAY

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