Politics & Policy

Searching for a Surrogate

Why does Obama need to rely on Bill Clinton?

Watching Bill Clinton act as Barack Obama’s “No. 1 surrogate,” in the words of NPR, is as exquisitely painful as watching a runaway monkey with a paintball gun at a museum.

Most of the pundits have focused on Clinton’s motivations for refusing to read his lines from the White House script. That’s understandable given that Clinton is a one-man reality show whose diversity of motives makes the ladies of the Real Housewives franchise seem nun-like in their simplicity. 

But asking “Why?” of Bill Clinton is a sucker’s game. Sure, he may give you an answer for why he did what he did, but any answer he gives you will be the verbal equivalent of an ice sculpture: impressive, but not expected to last long in the light of day. When he said that Mitt Romney is qualified to be president and had a “sterling business career,” he might as well have dropped the microphone and walked offstage, “Clinton out.” 

In Aesop’s fables, the scorpion explains to the frog that he had no choice but to sting him. “Hey, man, that’s just how I roll,” the scorpion texted the frog, in what I imagine would be the updated version.

But at least the scorpion has the class to own up to his deed. The funny thing about Clinton is that he just pretends everything is hunky-dory, like the guy who tries to suppress a grin as he watches you drink the laxative-spiked punch, or Vizzini in The Princess Bride when he thinks the Dread Pirate Roberts is the one about to die from iocane-powder poisoning. Bill does what Bill does. Just ask Hillary.

#ad#For the record, Clinton says he’s “aghast” at all the “flutter” about him wanting Obama to lose. In other news, my dog is aghast at rumors he likes bacon. 

Still, the more interesting question is: Why does Obama need Clinton to be his Surrogate Numero Uno in the first place?

It’s not like Obama and Clinton love each other. Obama’s been dissing Clinton for years, saying Bubba’s presidency wasn’t “transformative” and all that. And then there was the unpleasantness in the 2008 primaries. And yet, Bill remains the White House’s go-to guy.

It’s a fascinating weakness of this presidency: Obama has no reliable surrogates. Joe Biden is the vice president, and 90 percent of his job description is to be a carnival barker for his boss. But, particularly since Biden forced the president’s hand on gay marriage, it’s apparently dawned on the White House that Biden is less than dependable as a wingman. Sure, he might begin a statement by saying, “This president saved us from another Great Depression.” But you never know if he’ll finish by adding, “My neighbor has three rabbits,” or, “These are not my pants.”

The president has tried to be his own surrogate, personally going on the attack against Romney. But all that does is remind voters that Obama doesn’t want to talk about his own record — and further diminishes his tattered bipartisan brand.

That’s probably one reason they tried out David Axelrod as an anti-Romney hatchet man in Boston the other week. But you know your audition as Obama pitch man hasn’t gone well when 90 percent of the media coverage boils down to either stories about how you were booed by Romney supporters, or stories about how everyone’s asking, “What meth-head thought Axelrod would be a good surrogate?”

And where are the president’s Cabinet secretaries? Todd S. Purdum, in the latest issue of Vanity Fair, writes about how Obama’s Cabinet — which was sold as a “team of rivals” — has turned into a “team of mascots.”

Still, the great thing about mascots — at least the human variety — is that when they’re told to dance, they dance. The problem for Obama is that his Cabinet secretaries are the human manifestations of his record, and Obama’s record isn’t particularly popular. Put Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner on TV and you run the risk of someone asking him about the exploding national debt. Put Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius on a stage and someone might ask about her trampling of religious liberty, or be reminded of that whole “Obamacare” thing the president doesn’t want to talk about.

That leaves Bill Clinton — and a lot more “Clinton out” moments to come.

— Jonah Goldberg is the author of the new book The Tyranny of Clichés. You can reach him by e-mail at JonahsColumn@aol.com, or via Twitter @JonahNRO. © 2012 Tribune Media Services

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