Comparing Administrations: Clinton vs. Obama

In response to my "chessmater or pawn?" article about Barack Obama, some readers suggested that Team Clinton, from the 1990s, was flat-out more competent than today's Team Obama. Reader Mark Hall disagrees:

I'd ask this: if the Clinton operation was so much better, why did they accomplish so much less under more favorable circumstances?

Does any Clinton initiative compare to:

a. The rescue of the American economy under threat from the greatest economic catastrophe since the Great Depression (which, indeed, had some of its roots from Clinton admin initiatives)?

b. The rescue of the American auto industry?

c. The health care law?

d. The repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell?

e. The killing of Osama Bin Laden?

f. The sure-footed handling of any number of foreign crises?

As a relatively die-hard Democrat I loved Clinton, he was a wonderfully operatic politician. But, objectively, not much was accomplished other than the steps to balance the budget. And adroit handling of the crisis in Serbia/Bosnia. And, to be fair, much of balancing of the budget was luck -- the huge increase in tax receipts as a result of the Dot-Com (and credit expansion) booms of the late 90s.

I suspect that 50 years from now history will judge him far more kindly than Clinton. He's accomplished a lot. And it's that much more remarkable given the pressures of being the first black president in a nation that continues to grapple with our particular history.

On the other hand, a reader in Illinois writes with an anti-Team-Obama anecdote:

You are absolutely right about the Obama folks' overconfidence, and it seeps right down to the campaign interns. During the last cycle, I tried repeatedly to volunteer for the campaign. 

Despite my years of campaign experience, I was repeatedly treated with disrespect and disdain, by folks who were way younger than most of my sweaters. I remember one day I was at headquarters and a young man came in talking about an event he had just attended, which featured a speech by the head of the Chicago Public Schools. "He's a Hispanic guy -- I can't remember his name, but he's really amazing," the attendee said.

I said no, he's not Hispanic.

"I was there," the young man sniffed. "I saw him, and he's definitely Hispanic."

I said, "Ron Huberman is the head of the Chicago Public Schools, and he's not Hispanic."  [JF note: Huberman was born in Israel; his parents were Holocaust survivors.]

The young man shrugged. "I don't really care about local politics," he said.

"I thought all politics are local," I sighed.

A deep, profound sigh. Finally I just gave up. 
Clearly, they were able to win it without my help. But that experience, and many more like it, have made it hard for me to get fired up and ready to go for this round.

I do realize that every presidential campaign relies on eager teams of whippersnappers, and they often seem impertinent to those who have watched campaigns come and go. I heard (and was the object of) the same sort of complaint when I was a mid-20s staffer for the Carter team! This report offered FWIW.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

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