Bill Clinton Handicaps the GOP Presidential Candidates

At the Aspen ideas festival, the former commander in chief offers his thoughts on Romney, Huntsman, Bachmann, and how Obama can win in 2012

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ASPEN, Colo. -- Former President Clinton, playing handicapper in chief, labeled Republican front-runner Mitt Romney "a much better candidate" than in 2008, but predicted that Barack Obama would win a second term in 2012.

"He'll be able to paint quite a pretty picture by November of 2012, I think," Clinton said in an interview at the Aspen Ideas Festival, cosponsored by Atlantic Media, the parent company of National Journal.

Asked to assess the Republican field, Clinton said he is "always reluctant to say [who are] the strongest candidates because I'm afraid I'll kill him and I don't have the right to do that." But he proceeded to offer pointed assessments of former Massachusetts Gov. Romney, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann.

"I like the governors," Clinton said. "I like Huntsman and Romney. Romney is a much better candidate than he was last time because he is not apologizing for signing the [Massachusetts] health care bill. He's got another creative way of saying 'We ought to repeal Obamacare,' but that's probably the price of getting the nomination."

As for Huntsman, Clinton said to laughter that the former governor and Obama ambassador to China "hasn't said what he is for yet, but I just kind of like him. And he looks authentic, he looks like a real guy. I mean a real human being. I like his family... he was a pretty good governor." Bachmann, Clinton continued, "has been a better candidate than I thought she'd be, and I don't agree with her on nearly anything, but she's got a very compelling personal story and she's got a lot of juice and she turns a lot of those anti-government crowd, the people on."

But after assessing the Republicans, Clinton said he believed Obama would join him as the only other Democratic president since Franklin Roosevelt elected to two four-year terms. Amid widespread unease over the country's direction, most recent polls show Obama's approval rating hovering just below the 50 percent level that marks the traditional danger zone for an incumbent. But Clinton said: "I think that the president will be reelected. I've always thought so."

Despite the economy's continued struggles, Clinton said he believed Obama could make a strong economic case to the country. "He can talk about what he did do," Clinton said. "He took steps which avoided a depression. He saved the automobile industry by not just bailing them out, but by requiring a serious restructuring."

Moreover, Clinton continued, "I think he can talk about the fact that we have--when he took office, we had 2 percent of the global market for the electric batteries that will power the next generation of our electric cars and hybrid vehicles, and on January 1st of this year, we had 20 percent of the global market."

Clinton said Obama could also claim credit for bridging differences both in domestic and foreign policy. At home, Clinton said, "he's done a good job in trying to harmonize America's differences" and "trying to widen the circle of opportunity."

"I think he's got a good record on gay rights," added Clinton, who, after being blocked in his effort to allow gays to serve openly, imposed the "don't ask don't tell" policy in the military, which Obama revoked. "I think he's got a good record on trying to promote diversity in a positive way.... Look at what's happening to Europe now in the wake of this economic turmoil. All the ethnic and religious tensions rising again, all the dream of the united Europe whole and free for the first time since nation states relative to the European continent at risk."

Likewise, Clinton argued, in foreign affairs Obama will "have a lot to say about America's role in the world and, you know, he's been very tough in fighting terrorists. Long before Mr. bin Laden was dispatched, we had redeployed and had more drone attacks on terrorists where they're really a problem for us in the Pakistan-Afghanistan almost borderless region than in Iraq. So I think he'll have a good record on national security." Clinton insisted Obama could also point to a "laudable" record on education, including student-loan reforms that are "still largely a secret to the American people," but will help more young people complete college degrees. "It means no student will ever have to drop out of college again because of their loan debt and no student will ever have to pick a job because of their loans," Clinton said.

Clinton's warm words for Obama suggested how far a distance the two men have traveled since the former president feuded at times with Obama's camp during the fierce 2008 Democratic primary. In all, Clinton said Saturday of the man who bested his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, for the nomination after an epic struggle: "It is not like he doesn't have a story to tell."

Michael Brands/The Aspen Institute

Presented by

Ronald Brownstein is Atlantic Media's editorial director for strategic partnerships. More

Ronald Brownstein, a two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of presidential campaigns, is Atlantic Media's editorial director for strategic partnerships, in charge of long-term editorial strategy. He also writes a weekly column and regularly contributes other pieces for the National Journal, contributes to Quartz, and The Atlantic, and coordinates political coverage and activities across publications produced by Atlantic Media.

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