Obama, Clinton trade passive-aggressive barbs

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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In dueling statements, quips and asides, Barack Obama and former president Bill Clinton continue to scratch away at each other in what looks like a Washington, D.C. version of Toy Story’s cartoon-movie tale about Buzz Lightyear’s competition with Woody the cowboy.

Obama’s most recent dig at Clinton came Sept. 21 in New York when he arrived to speak at Clinton’s mini-Davos seminar, the annual meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative.

“I do envy President Clinton,” said Obama, who sits in his former oval office at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. “Because when you’re out of Washington, it turns out you’re just dealing with people who are reasonable all the time, and nobody is looking to score points, nobody is looking at the polls on any issue,” he said.

Obama’s dig came three days after Clinton had subtly slammed Obama’s re-election campaign and economic record during a Sept. 18 Sunday talk show on CBS.

“Right now we’ve got an economic problem,” Clinton said. “And the truth is that we’re never going to balance budget again — as we did when I was president — without a combination of three things: spending restraint, new revenues, and more economic growth. If you don’t have all three, we can’t get a hold of the debt problem.”

Clinton’s next set of jabs will come in November with the release of his new book, titled “Back to Work.” The book slyly positions Clinton as a cautious moderate caught between the extreme positions pushed by Obama and the GOP.

“Conflict between government and the private sector has proved to be remarkably good politics, but it has produced bad policies, giving us a weak economy with few jobs … In the real world, cooperation works much better than conflict,” says a summary released Monday by his publisher.

Alternatively complimentary and insulting, Obama and Clinton are reliving the first half of Toy Story’s passive-aggressive competition between two animated toys: Sheriff Woody Pride, and the intergalactic hero Buzz Lightyear who suddenly displaces him from his place as the child’s favorite toy. (RELATED: Former President Clinton criticizes Obama on taxes)

To some extent, Obama and Clinton are held together by the Democratic Party. Obama has taken care not to completely exile Clinton — and his many supporters — from his circle. On Sept. 24, for example, Obama invited Clinton to play a round of golf at Andrews Air Force Base. Clinton remains a loyal Democrat, and he doesn’t undermine Obama in the same fashion that President Jimmy Carter fumed and raged at President George H.W. Bush during the 1990s.

Clinton has been out of Washington for almost eleven years, and he has the hair and voice to prove it. But he also has a clear mind, a sharp tongue and a clear memory of the 1990s when he was president during economic boom years — and of the 1996 race, when he became the first Democratic president since FDR to win re-election. Those achievements are yet to be matched by Obama, whose public approval numbers recently plummeted through the 40-percent level.

“If we think people earned their money fairly, we do not resent their success,” Clinton said in a Sept. 21 interview with NewsMax, following Obama’s repeated efforts to demand that wealthy Americans pay what he said is their “fair share” of taxes.

“It’s one our best best characteristics … that’s why there’s been very little class conflict in American history,” said Clinton, who has seen a lot of change since he was was born in Hope, Arkansas, to a single mother, 65 years ago. In contrast, Obama’s mother, although single, was nestled within a solidly professional family, and had enough money to send her child to a private school in Hawaii.
“Bill Clinton is Hall of Fame at the fine art of the subtle political jab,” said Mark McKinnon, a media adviser and political strategist who crossed party lines to help George W. Bush win in 2000. “He can hit someone so artfully they don’t even know they’ve been punched, and next thing they know they’re looking up from the canvas and seeing stars,” said McKinnon, now the vice chairman of Hill & Knowlton, Inc., and a co-founder of the nonpartisan “No Labels” political group.

Obama’s jabs can sting. Obama lauded the former president at the 2009 Clinton Initiative event, saying that “after a lifetime of service, he would have been forgiven had he settled for a life of quiet, a life of ease, a life of improved golf scores — my understanding is they have not improved that much since he was in office.”

At this September’s meeting, Obama declared “it is wonderful to see so many do-gooders all in one room … and our do-gooder-in-chief, Bill Clinton.”

Obama also uses this passive-aggressive style when pushing back against the GOP. At a Sept. 25 fundraiser in San Jose, California, for example, Obama aggressively slammed Texas Governor Rick Perry as “a governor whose state is on fire, denying climate change.” This jab followed months of presidential passivity while Texas officials had sought his aid to fight those fires.

Obama does compliment Clinton on occasion, although it often accompanies a defense of his own record. “When he was president, he did not cut our way out of prosperity; he grew our way to prosperity … That’s the kind of nation that we’ve got to work to build again.  It will take time after the kind of crisis that we’ve endured.  And this is a once-in-a-generation crisis,” Obama said on Sept. 21.

Their rivalry goes back to the 2008 primary campaign, during which Obama and his allies suggested Clinton was racist to dismiss Obama’s primary victory in South Carolina. “Well, you know, I think that that’s his frame of reference was the Jesse Jackson races,” Obama told ABC’s “This Week” in February 2008. “That’s when, you know, he was active and involved.”

In April 2008, Obama seemed to give his rival the finger during a public speech as he gently scratched his cheek with his middle finger.

The two Alpha males have traded barbs on numerous occasions since 2008.

In April 2009, a tree-planting ceremony in D.C. turned into a competition. Obama complained that somebody had forgotten his boots, prompting Clinton to remark “See? You’re light on your feet.” Obama responded that Clinton “has pretty good shoveling skills.” Clinton then began digging a second hole, because “I got twice as much experience as everyone else,” he told a reporter.

In December 2010, shortly after GOP’s triumph in the November elections, Obama invited Clinton to visit the White House press room. Clinton took over the room, and held court even after Obama said he had to attend a a party with his wife. “‘I feel awkward being here, and now you’re going to leave me all by myself?’ he said, barely suppressing a smile,” according to a description related by the Washington Post.

“Obama, his arms crossed, stood watching Clinton for a few minutes. Then, as promised, he left. ‘I’ve been keeping the first lady waiting for about half an hour, so I’m going to take off,’ Obama said. ‘I don’t want to make her mad,’ Clinton said, smiling. ‘Please go.'”

Veterans of the Clinton White House played a minimal role in the current administration until Obama hired Clinton commerce secretary Bill Daley to be his chief of staff after the GOP dominated the 2010 congressional elections. Hillary Clinton was appointed Secretary of State, but she has played a minimal role in Obama’s primary foreign policy issues — the Arab world and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

There is much evidence that Clinton dislikes his exclusion from Obama’s White House. On Sept. 18, for example, he fended off a question about former Vice President Dick Cheney’s suggestion that Hillary Clinton would be a stronger 2012 candidate than Obama.

“I very much agree that she’s done a good job … [and] I also have a high regard for Vice President Cheney’s political skills and I think one of those great skills is sowing discord among the opposition,” Clinton said then.

“I don’t want to help him succeed in his political strategy, but I admire that he’s still out there hitting the ball,” Clinton said, just a week before his publisher made the surprise announcement that “Back to Work” will be released on Nov. 8, just one year before the next election.

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