Ex-Clinton aides: Obama lacked clear message during debt-ceiling talks

Former Clinton administration officials say that President Obama needed a better communications strategy during the debt-ceiling negotiations.

Since the agreement was struck last weekend, Republicans have been crowing about how they got the better of the deal while some congressional Democrats are still seething.

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A handful of key aides who worked for Clinton agreed to speak with The Hill on condition that they were not identified.

They claim that Obama could have used a better communications game plan, noting that Republicans started to frame the debate at the start of the new Congress in January.

“Clinton had a different approach on strategic messaging," a former Clinton staffer said. "I think there are things that he did differently than Obama that might have worked better."


The aides pointed out that Obama, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke opposed tying deficit reduction to raising the federal debt level. Congressional Democrats echoed that call, but their efforts proved fruitless, and Republicans effectively brushed it aside.

In a major win for the GOP, a hike in the debt ceiling was accompanied by spending reductions for the first time.

A former administration official called it “problematic” that the White House failed to challenge the link between cutting spending to reduce the deficit and raising the debt ceiling.

“The Tea Party folks were able to establish a linkage, almost unchallenged, between deficit and debt ceiling, which is problematic and when it was finally joined, there was no attempt to delink them – a manufactured link-up in this dynamic,” the official said.


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Lanny Davis, who served as special counsel to Clinton, disagrees.

He said, "I think the second guessing of President Obama is nonsense."

Republicans were inflexible, and Obama had to do everything he could to avoid default, according to Davis.

In a CNN poll conducted on the day the House approved the debt deal, respondents rated congressional approval at 14 percent. Respondents in the same poll rated Obama's approval at 45 percent.

GOP leaders were seen as the clear victors on the details of the deal because it did not include tax increases nor funding for infrastructure spending – high priorities for Democrats on Capitol Hill.

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) this week said Republicans called Obama’s bluff while Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said he got 98 percent of what he wanted.

Obama, however, won the battle over the bill's time frame. The possibility of default is now off the table until after the 2012 elections. At various times during the talks, Republicans had sought short-term fixes.

In the wake of the tax cut deal late last year and the debt agreement, Obama’s presidency is getting a reputation of bowing to GOP demands.

Clinton was hailed as a shrewd negotiator in his dealings with the GOP-led Congress from 1995 through 2000. He triumphed in the public relations battle during the 1995 and 1996 government shutdowns.

Following his reelection, Clinton struck a major deal with the GOP in signing the Balanced Budget Act of 1997 into law. The bill attracted strong support from both sides of the aisle.

Clinton last month spoke out on the debt negotiations, advocating for a short-term deal, and later, the use of the 14th Amendment. Both were quickly, and publicly, rejected by Obama.

While taking issue with Obama's public relations strategy, the ex-Clinton administration officials stressed that Clinton didn’t inherit the ailing economy that Obama did. Moreover, the political environment is far more polarized now, they said.

Davis, a columnist for The Hill, said he doubts Clinton would have actually invoked the 14th Amendment had he been in Obama's position. Davis said it would have set a bad precedent and could very well have been deemed illegal.

He also calls it "ironic" that some of the same liberal critics of President George W. Bush's efforts to expand the power of the executive branch were recently calling for Obama to consider the 14th Amendment option to solve the debt crisis.

Former Clinton press secretary Mike McCurry told The Hill that the president should have drawn his own line in the sand, perhaps that he would veto an extension of the Bush-era tax rates to expire for the wealthiest Americans.

But Obama did not make that demand effectively, where Boehner and the other GOP leaders repeatedly hammered away their message of no new tax increases.

Noting that he isn’t one to criticize the president, McCurry observed that a key lesson to learn from the debt negotiations is that “personal relationships matter.”

“I think the lesson learned, hopefully by President Obama and the White House is the more you build a working environment where people trust each other, the more you get things done,” McCurry said.

McCurry pointed out that Obama “stuck his neck out to try to build” a relationship with Boehner, “and it produced a very positive outcome.”

After months of public sniping between a GOP majority in the House and Democratic White House, Obama invited Boehner to hit the golf links.

Soon thereafter, Boehner and Obama met privately on several occasions and talked on the phone regularly.

McCurry said that it was an important step and suggested that doing so with other leaders could have made the process go more smoothly.

“There were very serious conversations between the two leaders on how to really get serious about dealing with our budget deficit, and unfortunately it didn’t go anywhere because there aren’t other relationships of trust. Nobody trusts each other on Capitol Hill,” said McCurry, a partner in the firm Public Strategies Washington.

Clinton administration officials say the battle over the deficit is really just beginning.

“[Republicans] may have won a couple innings, but this game is not over,” an ex-Clinton aide said.

Patrick Griffin, who headed the White House legislative affairs shop under Clinton, says the narrative will change from “cuts, cuts, cuts” to fixing the economy and creating jobs.

Griffin, a professor in graduate studies at American University, believes that Obama will have the advantage in defining that debate.

“The narrative is shifting. It has gone from simply who can cut more to who has a better world view in terms of building the economy and creating jobs and that narrative works to the president’s advantage much better than the onenote that was sung about cutting,” Griffin said.

Finger-pointing between the parties resumed this weekend after Standard & Poor’s downgraded the nation’s credit rating.

On Saturday, White House press secretary Jay Carney said the bipartisan debt deal was “an important step in the right direction. Yet, the path to getting there took too long and was at times too divisive.”

The White House did not comment for this article.

-- Bob Cusack contributed to this article.