Hope versus experience

Up to the eve of the 2010 congressional election, Bill Clinton campaigned tirelessly for his party. In all, he put in 127 appearances – more than almost any other senior Democrat. His often rousing interventions were not enough to soften the biggest defeat since Clinton’s own midterm humiliation in 1994. Nor did the widely forecast result lessen Clinton’s annoyance over the fact that others did not seem to have tried very hard to resist the Republican onslaught.

At several points, Clinton urged members of the Democratic National Committee to send talking points to candidates around the country, listing the party’s achievements in the previous two years. They ignored his advice. “It was frustrating to hear people shout at us after our speeches: ‘Why didn’t we know that?’” Clinton writes. “At least we know Democrats can keep a secret. The failure to counter the GOP national campaign with an equally good one cost the Democrats.”

At no point in Back to Work, Clinton’s manifesto for getting America back on her feet, does the author criticise President Barack Obama by name. And on only two or three occasions does he do so implicitly. Yet it is hard to avoid seeing the book as an implied rebuke from America’s 42nd president to its 44th. Imagine Jimmy Carter writing a screed on how to govern America halfway through Clinton’s presidency – or better still, a public missive from Bush Sr to Bush Jr.

Friends of Clinton make little secret of his disappointment with Obama’s apparent lack of interest in the advice he is keen to offer. The two have had a handful of meetings since Obama was elected – long enough to convey the younger man’s respect for his elder but sufficiently few and far between to suggest Obama does not feel in need of Clinton’s counsel.

At certain points in Back to Work, one can sympathise with Obama. As seems to be the fashion nowadays – and as has been a long-standing penchant of Clinton’s – he produces a lengthy checklist of things that need to be done. In all, there are 46 recommendations. Some of them, such as “end the mortgage mess as quickly as possible”, are important – even if they are hard to achieve in practice. Ditto for “speeding up the approvals process for infrastructure projects” and “concentrate on high-end manufacturing”. Too often, however, Clinton strays into a familiar preoccupation with the small-bore.

About a third of his suggestions are to do with clean energy. To be sure, the US would do well to retrofit its buildings, install light-emitting diodes on its streets and improve efficiency rules for its household appliances. It would even make sense to paint America’s urban roofs white – dark roofs send air conditioning bills through the roof, so to speak.

Nowhere, however, does Clinton propose a carbon tax, or a cap-and-trade system, to drive the change. This is strange since, as Clinton says, presidents should not be shy of proposing things because they are unlikely to pass Congress. “Even when you can’t win,” he says, “it’s best to get caught trying.” This should apply doubly to former presidents.

Clinton’s taste for the incremental does not stop at green energy. Again, it seems to make sense to negotiate “long-term food contracts with China, Saudi Arabia, and other nations facing food shortages”. And there is something to be said for promoting “crowdfunding [on the internet] to help small businesses raise capital”. None of these, however, are going to set the stands alight.

The man from Hope might argue that it is worth attempting a flurry of things to try to rejuvenate America. Yet his laundry list is vulnerable to the same critique often levelled at the Obama administration: it lacks an overarching narrative. Clinton substitutes phrases such as “We have to get back into the future business” for a more ambitious prognosis, which is half-promised but never arrives.

There are two sub-themes running through the book. The first is Clinton’s proud defence of his own two-term record in office. Indeed, if this book has a vision, it is retrospective. From the vantage point of today, or from almost any point since Clinton left office, the 1990s look like the golden years. At no time in the decade before or since Clinton’s presidency have middle-class living standards improved. During the Clinton years, median household income grew by almost a fifth. Since then it has lost most of those gains.

The same point applies to job creation: more than 22m jobs were created during the Clinton years. The size of the US labour force has actually fallen since then in spite of the increase in population. Clinton left office after four years of budget surplus – Washington’s first time in the black for more than a generation, and probably the last. On the political side, Clinton left Newt Gingrich’s Republican insurgents in tatters – a mauling from which the former speaker may only now be recovering. Clinton is certainly entitled to brag. And he does: “When I left office, the US was in a position to become debt-free within 12 to 15 years, handle the retirement of the baby boomers, and make investments required to keep the American Dream alive in the 21st century,” he writes.

Yet much of the 1990s boom was generated by the internet, which had been 25 years in the making. The end of the cold war also delivered a hefty windfall in the form of the “peace dividend”. Both helped Clinton put the budget into surplus, which in turn freed up more capital for a surge in private-sector investment. Clinton made a lot of his luck. But to claim that the 1990s boom was built on responsible fiscal stewardship would be like the rooster taking credit for the sunrise. Clinton ensured its bounty was handled more responsibly and distributed more fairly than it could have been. But it would most probably have happened anyway.

To be fair, Clinton does concede he “had the good fortune to become president at the moment when the IT revolution broke out”. Yet he seems to imply it would be possible to recreate the conditions of the 1990s. That might be wishful thinking.

The book’s second sub-theme follows from the first – that the future is America’s to lose. In essence, Clinton sees America’s problems as fixable if only the debate in Washington could be restored to sanity. “No one can take the future away from us,” he writes. “But we can take it away from ourselves.” According to Clinton, “critics have been betting on America’s demise for more than 200 years now”. They have always been proved wrong.

This observation suffers from a couple of drawbacks. First, it is not true that since her birth America has been the subject of continual obituaries. The early years of the Republic spawned many doubting ill-wishers, not least among America’s former colonial rulers in Britain. The launch of Sputnik in the 1950s generated a momentary panic that the Soviets had overtaken the Americans. And a wave of “Japanic” took hold in the late 1980s before the collapse of the Tokyo property bubble. But for most of the rest of America’s history, foreigners and Americans alike have either admired, or feared, the example of the world’s strongest democracy. Few have written it off.

Nor is anyone credible writing off America today (Pat Buchanan’s recent Suicide of a Superpower does not qualify). Yet in addressing America’s problems, it is important to acknowledge their depth. It has taken decades for America’s school system to slip into mediocrity. And it may take just as long to haul itself back up again. The causes are complex. Clinton acknowledges the problem but proposes few solutions. Nor does he have anything new to say about how to remedy America’s deep-seated trade deficit.

By the same token, American leaders should be more honest about how little they can usefully affect the continued shift of economic gravity from west to east. The roughly 12 per cent of the world’s population accounted for by the US and Europe could not hope to maintain an indefinite stranglehold over the global economy. By all means it would help, as Clinton advises, for the US to get back into the business of “doing the right thing”. But in so doing the US should not pretend it can turn back the clock. The rise of the rest is largely absent from Clinton’s book. As, too, is its impact.

Which brings us back to the book’s main subtext: Clinton’s frustration with Obama. It is here that Clinton could be most useful. Out of respect for Obama and presumably a desire to keep the door open for conversation, Clinton withholds the advice only he can give. Unlike Obama, and more than any living American politician, Clinton has a knack for reading the public mood. Clinton loves interacting with people. Obama does not.

Clinton does offer a hint or two of the kind of advice he could have given. “For reasons that are unclear, the president and the Democratic Congress did not raise the debt ceiling after the election in November or December 2010, when they still had a majority,” he writes. In fact, Obama did try but was threatened with a minority filibuster. Still, his failure to remove that lever before the Republican victory set him up for a year that would mostly be consumed by a game of chicken over a US sovereign default.

It is hard to imagine Clinton misplaying it so badly. Who can forget that it was Clinton’s willingness to allow a government shutdown that robbed Gingrich of his sting in 1995? Obama had a similar opportunity last March when the Republicans threatened not to pass an interim budget. If Obama had not blinked, the Tea Party could have been defanged in advance of the battle over the debt ceiling. There is so much that Clinton could say if only Obama would listen. Not much of it, alas, is to be found in this book.

Edward Luce is the FT’s chief US commentator

Back to Work: Why We Need Smart Government for a Strong Economy, by Bill Clinton, Hutchinson, RRP£16.99, 208 pages

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