(The Root) — In addition to the GOP, President Obama is contending with a pesky Bill Clinton bent on distracting the re-election campaign of the man who, by defeating his wife, blocked Clinton's return to the power stage of the White House.
Damning the president with high praise for his Republican rival is but the latest Clinton flare-up that topped even Mitt Romney's own assessment of his CEO years at Bain Capital. Clinton declared them a "sterling business career." Earlier, the Obama campaign had attacked Romney's stewardship with ads that approximated criticism his fellow GOP candidates aired: Bain was his "rich people" investment firm run by a flock of "vultures" executing "clever ways to loot a company."
"I don't think we ought to … say this is bad work." said Clinton, seizing the opportunity on CNN to bash the Obama administration. "This is good work." Hallelujah!
Unlike Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker and Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, who recently disagreed with the Obama campaign's attack on Bain Capital (as, respectively, a $565,000 campaign beneficiary and a chief executive of the firm's host state), Clinton's much broader tack sounded clearly disagreeable. After rating Romney's private career as stellar, the former president vetted the Republican's lone public-service term as governor — a record even Romney has been reluctant to promote — as adequate preparation for the White House.
"There's no question that in terms of getting up, going to the office and basically performing the essential functions of the office," Clinton asserted, "a man who's been governor and had a sterling business career crosses the qualification threshold [for U.S. president]."
Questions, on the contrary, do indeed arise about such a career as qualification alone for fixing the U.S. economy and commanding the world's lone superpower. One needs look no further than Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sarah Palin, both ex-governors and successful tycoons. In retrospect, Americans might assess, as Republicans insist, the performance of Jimmy Carter, the ex-governor and peanut baron. And most recently, there's one George W. Bush, the former governor and baseball mogul. His GOP enablers felt compelled to reinforce his Oval Office reign with the triumvirate of Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Colin Powell — and, despite all that, he still managed to drive his legacy-presidency headlong over the cliff.
Another flare-up in Clinton's not-so-stealth operation against Obama is illuminating the Democratic primary in New Jersey on Tuesday. While campaigning for Obama's re-election in general, Clinton faces off against him specifically by loudly supporting Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr. (D-N.J.), challenger of Rep. Steven R. Rothman (D-N.J.), whom President Obama endorsed by publicly escorting him past White House reporters following a 15-minute meeting in the Oval Office last week.
The bad blood of the '08 presidential campaign rose to the surface as Clinton went out of his way to repay Pascrell for supporting his wife's run against Obama. For his part, the sitting president embraced Rothman, the legislator who supported him earlier, with hopes also of regaining a Democratic majority in Congress.
This 2008 vitriol had already spread to Clinton surrogates when in a Wall Street Journal op-ed last fall, pollsters Patrick H. Caddell and Douglas E. Schoen boldly advocated for Hillary Clinton over Obama as the 2012 Democratic nominee, declaring that the first-term U.S. president should "abandon his candidacy for re-election in favor of [this] clear alternative."
This scheme sounds remarkably like the August 2011 plot that Edward Klein attributed to Bill Clinton in his book, The Amateur. In a reported conversation denied by the Clinton camps, Klein writes that, in the presence of associates, Bill pressed Hillary to resign as secretary of state and challenge her boss once again for the Oval Office. When asked about "loyalty," Bill's reported answer was in character even if it was not factual: "Loyalty is a joke," the publicly exposed, serial-philandering husband allegedly told his inquiring wife. "Loyalty doesn't exist in politics."
This 42nd president reportedly bemoaned that he has a better relationship with his GOP successor than he does with Obama. (This might explain his playing footsie with Romney.) Thus it appears not to be lost on Clinton that President Obama — who sharpened his skills at keeping toxic rivals at bay by neutralizing both Jesse Jackson and Louis Farrakhan in Chicago — has managed to exile the Clinton power couple far away from White House politics.
The peripatetic secretary of state is legally barred even from attending the Democrats' presidential convention in Charlotte this year, for example. As for the would-be inaugural first husband of the nation, Bill Clinton was saddled, early on, with the U.N. earthquake portfolio and, with the president's blessings, sent packing off to Haiti for fundraising efforts from investment firms like Bain Capital.
Clinton's flare-ups against Obama are no surprise to close observers of the etiquette of Southern white males under competitive pressure from certain quarters. On one level, they display the rancor of a baby boomer Arkansan nicknamed "Bubba," whose favored multimillion-dollar political machine, with his wife at the wheel, got run over by a skinny, basketball-playing, hip-hop-listening, community organizer on the South side of Chicago who, yes, once smoked reefer and, unlike Clinton, dared to inhale. On another level, we are witnessing the drama of the faux black president colliding with the first black president.
Les Payne is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and frequent contributor to The Root.