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Back To Work
London Times Review
Bill Clinton is preceded everywhere and in all formats by a bow-wave of his presumed genius. And he may, in fact, be a genius. Not many people get to be successful as a President, forgiven as a lothario, wealthy despite their legal bills and on the side of the angels in their retirement work, all in one lifetime.
The enviously inclined may therefore be reassured to know that Back to Work confirms what many readers of his earlier works had begun to suspect of him as a writer. He is staggeringly well informed, endlessly curious and fundamentally optimistic, but he needs a tougher editor.
Clinton the writer is so promiscuous with the semi-colon, so tireless with the subordinate clause, so Herculean in his piling of fact upon sometimes arguable fact that readers who didn’t know about Clinton the wonk and politician might give up on him quite quickly.
The 42nd President of the United States pummels the Republicans for their relentless anti-government ideology. He reminds us that his own presidency was a masterclass in political chess and technocratic brilliance, and he chides Barack Obama implicitly and explicitly for not doing a better job of selling his accomplishments. He also lists 47 stratagems for kick-starting the world's largest economy and putting America "back in the future business" where it belongs.
Despite all this, Back to Work could be even slimmer. I know this because earlier this week I had the task of abridging a section for Times readers. It shouldn’t have been easy, but it was. Too many of Clinton’s most resonant phrases are nestled in filler. Too many of his most telling details are buried within long paragraphs of think-tank speak. This is ironic given his criticism of the Obama Administration’s inept messaging, but it’s also a shame because for all its faults this book is a well-timed and serious contribution to the debate that will go a long way towards deciding next year’s election - the debate on what America’s Government is for.
Clinton claims that the book was born of frustration. He watched Obama and the Democrats take a beating in the 2010 midterms as Republicans managed to blame them for crises incubated almost entirely on the younger Bush’s watch. His response: get some “basic economic facts” in front of the American people to prevent it happening again. He wanted, more than anything, to torpedo the myth that government in the land of the free necessarily kills growth and prosperity. On the contrary, he argues, “smart” government is essential for both - and "the greatest accomplishment of the anti-government Republicans was not to reduce the size of the federal government but to stop paying for it".
He has charts to bolster his arguments, and two of them alone speak volumes. One lists GDP growth by president since Eisenhower. The five slowest growers are all Republican opponents of big government. Another divides up America’s national debt by president. It trebled in size under Reagan, shrank a little under Clinton and more than doubled again under Bush the Younger, but it is Obama who could be denied a second term because of it.
Unfair? Perhaps, but no one expects politics to be fair. If they did, readers might cry foul over Clinton's presentation of so many job-creation ideas in his book — from new lending incentives for banks to painting America’s roofs white — without also presenting Obama with the magic wand he would need to put most of them into practice in the age of a do-nothing Congress.
In practice the book"s most obvious effect so far in Washington has been to reopen the debate on whether its author is trying to support or undermine the President. Two of his three main criticisms of Obama are easily answered.
“For reasons that are unclear,” he writes, the Administration failed to raise the statutory national debt ceiling while it still had a majority in the lame duck Congress of November and December 2010. The result was this summer’s disastrous debt ceiling showdown and the unprecedented downgrade of US debt. In fact the reasons for this failure are entirely clear: the Republican Senate minority said that it would prevent any debt increase with a filibuster.
Second, Clinton congratulates himself on managing to raise taxes on Wall Street bankers in 1993, with the implicit jab at Obama that he has failed to do the same. How did Clinton do it? “I didn’t attack them for their success,” he writes, leaving unmentioned the small matter of an epoch-making financial crash that rendered 2009 utterly different from 1993 and has left 74 per cent of Americans believing Mr Obama has not attacked bankers enough.
Clinton has had the grace to withdraw the debt ceiling criticism since publication, but it’s a mark of unnecessary sloppiness in a book produced with the support of a large post-presidential staff. There are other symptoms of the same problem: in a list of reasons “why we need government”, he bafflingly leaves out public education. In a section on the power of public-private co-operation to make the world a better place he actually praises Obama for ordering new vehicle emissions standards. “There was no fighting or name-calling, so it was a one-day story,” he writes. In fact there was a lot of fighting, and the new standards are on ice pending a wave of lawsuits.
Is it OK to nitpick with the writings of “the Natural”? If he is to keep his place on the political scence, it’s essential. For the time being he still passes that test. To the extent that Back to Work is read rather than just talked about, it could help Obama, America and anyone seeking talking points to use against Reaganites at dinner parties. But first you will need to turn off the telly and concentrate. Bill Clinton is living proof that knowledge is power, and in Back to Work he wants to take you back to school.
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