With friends like Bill...
As US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spent time this week schmoozing with Indian external affairs minister SM Krishna at the US-India Strategic Dialogue in Washington, the Obama administration was engaged in a strategic dialogue with her husband, former President Bill Clinton. The gist of that conversation could well have been: "Shut up, please."columns Updated: Jun 15, 2012 23:14 IST
As US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spent time this week schmoozing with Indian external affairs minister SM Krishna at the US-India Strategic Dialogue in Washington, the Obama administration was engaged in a strategic dialogue with her husband, former President Bill Clinton. The gist of that conversation could well have been: "Shut up, please."
Bill is a major surrogate for US President Barack Obama's re-election campaign. But already, the relationship between them has turned into one resembling that between supposed allies, the US and Pakistan. Every time Obama's team puts a strategy in place, Bill saunters out to the media and destroys it. You can almost picture a Clintonian wink as he shrugs: "But I was only trying to help, guys."
Bill was famously elected president on the bumper sticker slogan: "It's the economy, stupid." As the Obama re-election campaign attempts to deflect attention from that very issue, their mantra of grief could well be: "It's the stupid economy."
Even as they attempt to paint Republican Mitt Romney a one percenter and a vulture capitalist, Bill smiles at the camera and talks. For instance, he described Romney's business record as "sterling", an adjective that left Democratic strategists lost for words.
If Romney's time heading the firm Bain Capital was to be another mode of attack, Bill was happy to interject and explain that Romney's background put him over the "qualification threshold" to be president.
At times, Bill even seems to channel his nemesis during his presidency, then Speaker of the House of Representatives Newt Gingrich. During his abortive run for the Republican nomination, Gingrich described himself as a would-be "president of paychecks" while dubbing Obama "the finest food stamp president in American history." Always competitive and unwilling to let his erstwhile adversary have the last word, Clinton recently whined about the state American economy is in with "so many people getting food stamps, so many people getting unemployment."
The Romney campaign is certainly enjoying the unexpected assist. It launched a fake Twitter account Bill_Clinton12, now suspended. Funnily enough, those tweets, meant as parody, seemed too real. One went: "A vote for @BarackObama is a crap shoot, a roll of the dice." That was a phrase Clinton actually employed during the 2008 primary campaign, when his wife was engaged in a bitter race with Obama for the Democratic Party's nomination. The Romney campaign killed that Twitter account, possibly figuring that Bill was doing a fine hit job on his own.
His off message adventures have troubled the Obama campaign because it has to expend energy on a flurry of clarifications. And they aren't quite sure where the loose cannon will fire next. Like supporting a temporary extension of tax cuts for the wealthy, a measure implemented by George W Bush, which Obama has vowed to veto. With each fresh fusillade, Bill pumps more holes in the Obama campaign narrative.
The real question is whether Bill is really gaffe prone. If the punditry expects American voters to believe that, Clintonistas could turn to them and respond, "Sorry, no cigar." Who could believe that a politician, who, during l'affaire Monica Lewinsky, asked for a clarification of what the "meaning of the word 'is' is", would be careless with words? With Bill Clinton you know what the meaning of this is. He may have turned vegan but he knows red meat when he sees it. Obama may just find out what the meaning of diss is.
There are still scars from the 2008 campaign, when Obama criticised his presidency in the same breath as that of his successor, Bush. Perhaps its payback for badmouthing the Clinton "legacy". And there's always the consideration that an Obama defeat this November could enable another Hillary Clinton run for the White House in 2016. At the centre of Bill's insurgency is a case of the Clinton agenda, uber alles.
There's no doubt that Clinton will proclaim during the campaign that he's got Obama's back. That may not be where the president wants him.
Currently based in Toronto, Anirudh Bhattacharyya has been a New York-based foreign correspondent for eight years.
The views expressed by the author are personal.