TIMOTHY NOAH MAY 2, 2012
Here is Bill Clinton, reviewing The Passage Of Power, the fifth volume of Robert Caro's Lyndon Johnson biography, in the May 5 New York Times Book Review:
L.B.J., [Sargent] Shriver and other giants of the civil rights and antipoverty movements ... believed government had an essential part to play in expanding civil rights and reducing poverty and inequality. It soon became clear that hearts needed to be changed, along with laws. Not just Congress, but the American people themselves needed to be got to. [...] For a few brief years, Lyndon Johnson, once a fairly conventional Southern Democrat, constrained by his constituents and his overriding hunger for power, rose above his political past and personal limitations.... After all the years of striving for power, once he had it, he said to the American people, “I’ll let you in on a secret — I mean to use it.” [...] He knew what the presidency was for: to get to people—to members of Congress, often with tricks up his sleeve; to the American people, by wearing his heart on his sleeve.
I think it's pretty clear that Clinton is not addressing these remarks to you, or me, or Caro, or Times Book Review editor Sam Tanenhaus, or Times executive editor Jill Abramson, or any other Times reader save one (though the rest of us are welcome to listen in). He's addressing them to the 44th president of the United States.
Clinton and Obama don't have the greatest of relationships, and I can well imagine that Obama will bristle when reading Clinton's review. It would be natural for him to think: Who the hell is Clinton to lecture me? I got more done during my first two years in office than he got done in eight. And Obama would be right about that. Passage of the health care bill and the Dodd-Frank financial reform, for all the shortcomings of those two laws and all the pushback he's getting on them (from, among others, the Supreme Court) were spectacular accomplishments achieved in spite of hyperpartisan opposition and no small amount of timidity on the part of his fellow Democrats.
But, if that is Obama's initial reaction, I hope he gets past that to consider what Clinton is saying. Obama is in many ways an excellent politician but when it comes to one-on-one persuasion he is no match for Johnson or even Clinton (the White House's greatest retail politician since LBJ). Clinton's tragedy is that he never was able to use his considerable gifts to effect change on the scale he's writing about here. Obama's tragedy may prove to be that he lacks these gifts altogether. He's done amazingly well so far without them. But if he gets a second term, Obama's path forward will be much more difficult. We saw in Obama flickers of what Clinton is talking about when he manipulated the GOP into supporting an extension of the payroll tax cut. Here's hoping we'll see more.