Bill Clinton's new political game

What is Bill Clinton playing at? Well, it isn’t just golf.

The question is one politics watchers have asked frequently over the past two decades. But it has resurfaced with new sharpness as the former president has pushed himself toward center-stage again in recent weeks.

Clinton’s prominence is not in itself undermining President Obama. But there are enough mixed messages coming from Clinton and from those around him to raise a large question about whether enmities from the grueling 2008 presidential race are really buried.

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Clinton seemed to step on President Obama’s new economic message last month when he stated, “I personally don’t believe we ought to be raising taxes or cutting spending until we get this economy off the ground.”

His remarks were seized upon with glee by conservatives, while the mere decision to give such an interview to Newsmax, a right-wing outlet, seems unlikely to have won the 42nd president many new friends in the West Wing.

Back in July, Clinton said he would solve the debt-ceiling debate by invoking the 14th Amendment, obviating the need for congressional approval. Clinton’s combative approach — he told the National Memo that he would use the tactic “without hesitation, and force the courts to stop me” — seemed to be well received by a Democratic base that had grown restive over Obama’s willingness to compromise.

In addition, Clinton strategist James Carville raised more than a few eyebrows when he penned an outraged op-ed for CNN’s website two weeks ago. In it, the Ragin’ Cajun answered his own question — What should the White House do now? — with one word: “Panic.”

He added that Obama needed to “fire somebody. No — fire a lot of people.”

David Gregory, host of NBC’s “Meet the Press,” asked Clinton what he thought of that point of view shortly afterward. Clinton said there was no real need to fire someone, as Obama had “a good economic plan.” But he added that, “I know what James meant. James meant that we need a political turn.”

It was hardly an emphatic rejection of Carville’s point of view.

“No one should ever be surprised when Bill Clinton strides back into the spotlight,” David Maraniss told The Hill. Maraniss, author of the authoritative biography of Clinton’s pre-presidency years, “First In His Class,” added: “The two things that bother Clinton more than anything in the world are being bored or being ignored. He would rather be in a firestorm than be irrelevant.”

Maraniss also suggested Clinton could be responding, in part, to “rumblings from supporters that if only he were president during the debt crisis, he would have eaten [Speaker John] Boehner [R-Ohio] and the Republicans for lunch, as he did with Newt Gingrich and that crowd in 1995 and 1996.”

Obama allies must be tempted to look askance at Clinton’s urgings to adopt a more confrontational attitude. After all, he was in his time derided by liberals for his love of “triangulation,” a policy that yielded welfare reforms that were deeply unpopular on the left.

One of the signature achievements of Obama’s first term has been to roll back a major Clinton-era compromise on the rights of gays in the military, “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” that satisfied almost no one.

Some observers believe Clinton might nevertheless think Obama could and should look to his presidency for lessons. The thesis holds that Clinton wants to see a politician to whom he is ideologically (if not personally) simpatico succeed, rather than repeat his mistakes.

“He must have a certain amount of sympathy for what Obama is going through, but also a certain amount of impatience,” said Michael Takiff, the author of “A Complicated Man,” a recent oral history of Clinton’s life and career.

Mike McCurry, Clinton’s onetime White House press secretary, pushed back against that idea, however. He said he believed Clinton would “consider it a little presumptuous” to be seen to be offering Obama lessons from his stint in the White House.

McCurry also insisted that he did not sense any remnants of the tension that marked the 2008 campaign. “They’ve gotten well past that,” he said.

McCurry added: “I think [Clinton] has a very good feel for the shape and contours of history and how much a former president should be in the picture or not. He knows how to use his voice at the right moment to help President Obama, yet he is not going to overexpose himself by acting as a cheerleader.”

There seems little danger of Clinton being mistaken for an over-the-top Obama fan.

Admittedly, there have been signs of a personal deepening of relations between the two men, the most recent being a golf outing at Andrews Air Force base late last month.

Still, Clinton’s relationship with his first Democratic successor as president continues to be freighted with baggage. The problem might center on Clinton’s perception of his place both within the Democratic family and in the history books.

“Obama stole his place in the heart of the Democratic faithful,”  Takiff said.

Takiff did not dismiss the idea that Clinton might even have mixed feelings about Obama’s reelection bid, given that success would likely remove Clinton’s status as the only Democrat since FDR to have served two full terms in the Oval Office — though he suggested this was part of a more generalized picture of feeling himself in competition with other major figures in his party.

“It’s interesting that Clinton didn’t get along with Jimmy Carter, and there are these issues with Obama. Yet he seems to love the Bushes,” Takiff noted. “They are not in competition with him.”

Over the weekend, Clinton and his inner circle reassembled in Little Rock, Ark., to mark the 20th anniversary of his announcement of his run for the presidency. It was a reminder of a time when they were outsiders to power yet at the center of the political universe.

Their hero seems, still, unwilling to move to the sidelines.

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