Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton at the 2012 State of the Union. Photo: Getty
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What Hillary Clinton’s new book tells us about her unspoken pact with Barack Obama

Clinton gets Obama’s donors and operatives, and in return Obama gets the Democratic nominee best able to make sure his accomplishments outlive his administration. What’s not to like?

So far, we know that Hillary Clinton’s new book, Hard Choices, catalogues the following disagreements with her former boss, Barack Obama: She favoured arming and training moderate Syrian rebels, keeping Hosni Mubarak in power longer, taking a tougher line with Vladimir Putin, and easing the economic embargo on Cuba. And all this comes before the book is even officially out.

In the history of presidential politics, it’s taken far less to prompt feuding between torch-passer and presumed recipient. (See, for example, that other politician named Clinton and his heir apparent.) Surely the White House is stewing over these politically-convenient revelations.

Actually, no. “I’m sure they’re trying to stay on top of what’s in there,” says a senior Obama campaign adviser from 2008 and 2012. “I’m sure there’s dialogue going on.” But the adviser discerns no particular “freak-out”, which certainly isn’t visible from the outside either.

What explains the apparent calm? The most obvious answer is the unspoken pact between Hillary’s world and Obama’s: for Clinton, the pact means she gets the Obama donors and operatives who helped derail her first presidential run (and, more importantly, she denies their services to any potential challenger). In return, Obama ends up with the Democratic nominee best able to make sure his accomplishments outlive his administration. As a senior White House aide from Obama’s first term told me: “I think it’s a good thing that she’s the odds on favourite to be president next. … If it weren’t for her, I’d be worried about Obama’s legacy, Obamacare, all those things.” Neither side has an interest in violating the terms of this win-win deal with more than two years left on the clock.

But, of course, the elemental forces of presidential politics have a way of undermining such arrangements even if no one is trying to defect. And, at first glance, the Clinton book looks like it may have unleashed these forces. After all, at some point between now and 2016, it will be in Hillary’s interest to differentiate herself from the current administration so as to avoid the drag that an almost any lame-duck president inflicts. And it will be in Obama’s interest to resist that differentiation, lest members of his own party prematurely decide that Hillary is their de facto leader. (Imagine members of Congress calling Hillary rather than the White House for direction in 2015 and you begin to see the downsides for Obama.) It wouldn’t be hard to read Clinton’s book as an early push in this inevitable shoving match.

But it turns out that there are powerful reasons for the two camps to stick to the arrangement for as long as possible, even through what would appear to be a provocation as serious as the Clinton book. For Hillary, no political persona has been more rewarding than her team-player persona. Her approval rating jumped 10 points when she agreed to become secretary of state in 2008, the significance of which was not lost on her advisers. As Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes report in their book HRC, sublimating her political ambitions to the Obama agenda was one of her team’s key self-imposed imperatives during her tenure as secretary. “The second she becomes political and partisan,” a Clinton campaign adviser told Allen and Parnes, “she becomes a little bit more radioactive.” 

And so even as Clinton’s book lays out a variety of dissents she will no doubt invoke when taking flak from Jeb Bush, for the moment she’s still far more interested in bucking up Obama than in distancing herself. Look no further than her emphatic comments on the release of Afghanistan POW Bowe Bergdahl. (“It doesn’t matter” how he was captured, she told ABC’s Diane Sawyer, “we bring our people home.”) The stand seemed to signal her posture of choice during the forthcoming book tour, and it was certainly welcome in the White House.

As for the president, as annoying as it must be to have the most popular Democrat in the country distance herself from his foreign-policy B-sides, the broader arrangement still beats any plausible alternative. Consider: if not for the way Hillary’s proto-campaign has frozen the Democratic presidential field, there would already be half-a-dozen Democratic governors and senators trooping through Iowa, complaining to anyone who will listen that Obama still hasn’t closed Guantanamo, arrested any Wall Street bankers, or brought the NSA to heel. “Put aside that she may or may not share all his positions,” says the Obama campaign adviser. “The fact that no one is doing that is a great thing for him.”

As long as Hillary’s 2016 plans continue to bring such benefits, the White House will happily ignore a book that would have the whiff of betrayal under any other circumstances. Like all great marriages of convenience, this one is built to withstand a little emotional distress. 

This article first appeared at newrepublic.com

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Donald Trump ushers in a new era of kakistocracy: government by the worst people

Trump will lead the whitest, most male cabinet in memory – a bizarre melange of the unqualified and the unhinged.

“What fills me with doubt and dismay is the degradation of the moral tone,” wrote the American poet James Russell Lowell in 1876, in a letter to his fellow poet Joel Benton. “Is it or is it not a result of democracy? Is ours a ‘government of the people by the people for the people’, or a kakistocracy rather, for the benefit of knaves at the cost of fools?”

Is there a better, more apt description of the incoming Trump administration than “kakistocracy”, which translates from the Greek literally as government by the worst people? The new US president, as Barack Obama remarked on the campaign trail, is “uniquely unqualified” to be commander-in-chief. There is no historical analogy for a President Trump. He combines in a single person some of the worst qualities of some of the worst US presidents: the Donald makes Nixon look honest, Clinton look chaste, Bush look smart.

Trump began his tenure as president-elect in November by agreeing to pay out $25m to settle fraud claims brought against the now defunct Trump University by dozens of former students; he began the new year being deposed as part of his lawsuit against a celebrity chef. On 10 January, the Federal Election Commission sent the Trump campaign a 250-page letter outlining a series of potentially illegal campaign contributions. A day later, the head of the non-partisan US Office of Government Ethics slammed Trump’s plan to step back from running his businesses as “meaningless from a conflict-of-interest perspective”.

It cannot be repeated often enough: none of this is normal. There is no precedent for such behaviour, and while kakistocracy may be a term unfamiliar to most of us, this is what it looks like. Forget 1876: be prepared for four years of epic misgovernance and brazen corruption. Despite claiming in his convention speech, “I alone can fix it,” the former reality TV star won’t be governing on his own. He will be in charge of the richest, whitest, most male cabinet in living memory; a bizarre melange of the unqualified and the unhinged.

There has been much discussion about the lack of experience of many of Trump’s appointees (think of the incoming secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, who has no background in diplomacy or foreign affairs) and their alleged bigotry (the Alabama senator Jeff Sessions, denied a role as a federal judge in the 1980s following claims of racial discrimination, is on course to be confirmed as attorney general). Yet what should equally worry the average American is that Trump has picked people who, in the words of the historian Meg Jacobs, “are downright hostile to the mission of the agency they are appointed to run”. With their new Republican president’s blessing, they want to roll back support for the poorest, most vulnerable members of society and don’t give a damn how much damage they do in the process.

Take Scott Pruitt, the Oklahoma attorney general selected to head the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Pruitt describes himself on his LinkedIn page as “a leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda” and has claimed that the debate over climate change is “far from settled”.

The former neurosurgeon Ben Carson is Trump’s pick for housing and urban development, a department with a $49bn budget that helps low-income families own homes and pay the rent. Carson has no background in housing policy, is an anti-welfare ideologue and ruled himself out of a cabinet job shortly after the election. “Dr Carson feels he has no government experience,” his spokesman said at the time. “He’s never run a federal agency. The last thing he would want to do was take a position that could cripple the presidency.”

The fast-food mogul Andrew Puzder, who was tapped to run the department of labour, doesn’t like . . . well . . . labour. He prefers robots, telling Business Insider in March 2016: “They’re always polite . . . They never take a vacation, they never show up late, there’s never a slip-and-fall, or an age, sex or race discrimination case.”

The billionaire Republican donor Betsy DeVos, nominated to run the department of education, did not attend state school and neither did any of her four children. She has never been a teacher, has no background in education and is a champion of school vouchers and privatisation. To quote the education historian Diane Ravitch: “If confirmed, DeVos will be the first education secretary who is actively hostile to public education.”

The former Texas governor Rick Perry, nominated for the role of energy secretary by Trump, promised to abolish the department that he has been asked to run while trying to secure his party’s presidential nomination in 2011. Compare and contrast Perry, who has an undergraduate degree in animal science but failed a chemistry course in college, with his two predecessors under President Obama: Dr Ernest Moniz, the former head of MIT’s physics department, and Dr Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist from Berkeley. In many ways, Perry, who spent the latter half of 2016 as a contestant on Dancing with the Stars, is the ultimate kakistocratic appointment.

“Do Trump’s cabinet picks want to run the government – or dismantle it?” asked a headline in the Chicago Tribune in December. That’s one rather polite way of putting it. Another would be to note, as the Online Etymology Dictionary does, that kakistocracy comes from kakistos, the Greek word for “worst”, which is a superlative of kakos, or “bad”, which “is related to the general Indo-European word for ‘defecate’”.

Mehdi Hasan has rejoined the New Statesman as a contributing editor and will write a fortnightly column on US politics

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era