It’s no secret that former President Bill Clinton and President Barack Obama are more “frenemies” than political friends. Bill Clinton was his wife Hillary Clinton’s biggest attack dog in the 2008 Democratic presidential campaign, and both publicly and privately suggested that then-Sen. Obama wasn’t up to being commander in chief. Hillary Clinton and Obama have since buried the hatchet, but there have always been two Bill Clintons when it comes to his dealings with the president.
One Bill Clinton desperately wants his wife to win and supports Obama as a fellow Democrat. The other Bill Clinton is like an ever-competitive Michael Jordan watching Kobe Bryant, grousing every minute and throwing shade by pointing out how he was better in his prime. Which is why it’s not surprising that on Monday, Bill Clinton described Obama’s presidency as having an “awful legacy.”
The question now is, which Bill Clinton is going to clean up the mess?
On Monday during a campaign stop in Spokane, Wash., Bill Clinton said the following about his wife during an extended riff: “If you believe we can rise together, if you believe we’ve finally come to the point where we can put the awful legacy of the last eight years behind us and the seven years before that, where we were practicing trickle-down economics, then you should vote for her.”
Republicans jumped on the statement, and the Hillary Clinton campaign immediately started having flashbacks to “off message” Bill Clinton from campaign 2008. This is a horrible way to start the stretch run of the nomination race for Hillary Clinton.
It’s difficult to claim that this was just a slip of the tongue, since Bill Clinton clearly references not just the Obama administration but also the previous Bush administration in the same sentence. And it’s not as if he got confused and somehow thought he was stumping for his wife in 2008. Next, and perhaps most important, the Hillary Clinton campaign has unofficially dubbed itself the third Obama term, so any suggestion that Obama’s administration is a failure is not a good look, especially when she so desperately needs African-American voters this fall.
Angel Urena, a spokesperson for Bill Clinton, came out to “clarify” those statements for the campaign almost immediately. The former president was “referring to the GOP’s obstructionism and not President Obama’s legacy,” she said.
She went further, repeating the many times over the years that Bill Clinton has given President Obama credit for rescuing the U.S. economy and fighting for progressive values against Republican resistance.
In Bill Clinton’s defense, this isn’t the first time his comments have been taken out of context or edited to make it sound as if he’s still got it in for Obama. In February, media outlets reported that Clinton slammed Obama by saying “you don’t have a president that’s a change-maker” at a campaign rally in Memphis, Tenn.—the implication being that Obama didn’t bring the change he promised and that the “frenemy” rift between Team Clinton and Team Obama still exists. However, the entire quote had the absolute opposite message: “ … you don’t have a president who is a change-maker with a Congress who will work with him. But the president has done a better job than he has gotten credit for. And don’t you forget it!”
It’s hard to believe that a month ago Bill Clinton would be praising Obama and now he’s suddenly calling his legacy a disaster, but that is the kind of scrutiny the former president will be under for the rest of this campaign. The “pro-Hillary, team-player Democrat” Bill Clinton needs to have a come-to-Jesus conversation with the “Obama can’t do it like I used to do it” Bill Clinton. The two of them can be an effective combo to win the White House for Democrats in three consecutive elections, but only if they can reconcile their differences and watch their tongues. There are only so many times you can spin an “awful legacy” into a positive before people start to believe Bill Clinton.
Or, at least, one of them.
Jason Johnson, political editor at The Root, is a professor of political science at Morgan State’s School of Global Journalism and Communication and is a frequent guest on MSNBC, CNN, Al-Jazeera International, Fox Business News and SiriusXM Satellite Radio. Follow him on Twitter.