Why is Bill Clinton a better politician than Barack Obama? In a word, triangulation. Bill Clinton was always seeking opportunities to emphasize his political independence from Democrats and liberals, particularly on cultural issues. After all, Clinton was the man that brought “Sister Souljah moment” into the political lexicon.
Since getting elected, Obama and his administration seem to have reflexively expressed the doctrinaire liberal position more often than not. But in a center-right country, where an increasingly small number of the electorate identifies as liberal, that doesn’t get you very far.
Case in point, the Juan Williams firing. Talk about low hanging fruit! How hard would it have been to come out and say, “Ok, I think calls to defund NPR are premature, but that was really a bone-headed move to let Juan Williams go. Perhaps he could have expressed himself better, but it was clear from the context of his remarks he’s not bigoted, and we really need to be able to address tensions over race and religion in this country in a frank and good faith manner. I have tried to do that throughout my career, and I think that’s what Williams was attempting to do.”
Had he said something to that effect, Obama would have looked like he was in touch for once. He would have scored some points with conservatives who hate political correctness by acknowledging the obvious problems with Williams’ firing, while still appeasing his liberal base by coming out against defunding NPR. At the end of the day Obama still finds himself riding to the defense of a liberal black civil rights expert. When the dust cleared, Obama would find himself standing firmly in the sensible center. It’s a very low-risk, high-reward political move.
The president, however, seems overly concerned with Muslim outreach (among other things), so I wonder if he’s even capable of seeing the forest for the trees in the Williams episode. Last year’s “beer summit” episode where Obama prematurely rode to the defense of Henry Louis Gates Jr. suggests Obama’s triangulation instincts are terrible. I have little doubt that Bill Clinton’s political instincts would have led him to capitalize on the Juan Williams episode, but I’m afraid Obama is so much of an ideologue that triangulation 101 is beyond his grasp.