Bill Clinton’s new book, “Back to Work,” is really several books in one slender volume. It’s a lucid one-man rebuttal of the Tea Party’s anti-government agenda. A series of shrewd talking points for Democrats trying to hold on to the White House and battling for control of Congress in the midst of a sour economy and growing voter discontent. A self-serving reminder of the prosperity the country enjoyed during Mr. Clinton’s tenure in the White House, meant to burnish his legacy. And a practical set of proposals — some borrowed and some new, some innovative and some highly sketchy — for restoring economic growth and creating jobs.
The book, which appears to be an expanded version of a Newsweek article by Mr. Clinton that appeared in June, shows the former president in two familiar modes: freewheeling policy wonk and genial retail politician.
At a time when anti-government ranting dominates the Republican debates and the Democrats often seem on the defensive, Mr. Clinton serves up a succinct common-sense argument for why America needs a strong national government, why both spending cuts and increased tax revenues are necessary for addressing the debt problem (which is going to get worse given the demographics of an aging baby-boomer population and the high costs of interest payments), and why that debt problem “can’t be solved unless the economy starts growing again.”
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Although Mr. Clinton questions the Obama administration’s embrace of nuclear-power loan guarantees — he brings up the vulnerability of nuclear plants to natural disasters and contends that “nuclear isn’t much of a job creator compared with other clean fuel sources” — the bulk of this book underscores just how closely aligned Mr. Clinton is with President Obama on many policy issues. The book contrasts their shared economic approach to that of Republicans, from Ronald Reagan through George W. Bush, who, Mr. Clinton writes, abandoned the idea of a balanced budget and instead chose “large tax cuts especially for higher income people like me, along with two wars and the senior citizens’ drug benefit,” which resulted in snowballing deficits.
At the same time, this book has a passive-aggressive subtext, which suggests that Mr. Clinton has stepped into a gap — has gone “back to work,” as it were — to sell Obama policies that have not been persuasively sold to the American people. Mr. Clinton writes that he started and stopped writing the book several times because he didn’t “want just to add another stone to the Democratic side of the partisan scale,” but “decided to go forward because I think it’s important that all Americans have a clear understanding of the basic economic facts and of the ideas driving the policy proposals under discussion.”
Mr. Clinton wonders why “the president and the Democratic Congress did not raise the debt ceiling after the election, in November or December 2010, when they still had a majority.” Such a move arguably would have averted the debilitating down-to-the-wire negotiations this summer, which Mr. Clinton says left the United States looking “weak and confused” to the outside world.
Among the reasons for the size of the Republican victories in 2010, Mr. Clinton argues, was the Democrats’ failure to “counter the national Republican message with one of their own.” The Republicans, in Mr. Clinton’s view, ran “a more effective, more aggressive campaign” that characterized the speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi; the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid; and Mr. Obama “as extreme leftists who wanted to spend America into ruin, regulate the economy into extended recession, and tax individuals into poverty and businesses into bankruptcy.” The Democrats, he says, “ran individual races without a big message,” apparently because “they couldn’t agree on one.”
What sort of authority does Mr. Clinton bring to writing this book? His admirers will argue that he is the ideal author for a book about fixing the economy, and will point to his record as president — reducing the federal deficit, overhauling welfare, blunting his party’s reputation for profligate spending and presiding over the longest economic expansion on record with falling unemployment, rising incomes and improved competitiveness on the world stage. Moreover, as president and later as founder of the Clinton Global Initiative, he understands the politics and economics of globalization and the dynamics of the technological information age.
But critics will argue that the deregulatory policies promoted by Mr. Clinton’s administration — under the treasury secretaries Robert E. Rubin and later Lawrence H. Summers — contributed to conditions that led to the Wall Street meltdown of 2008 and the subsequent recession. In this book Mr. Clinton skims over these issues lightly. Of his signing of the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act repealing part of the Depression-era Glass-Steagall Act that prohibited commercial banks from engaging in the investment business, he argues that it is not self-evident that “the mortgage crisis was hastened and enlarged by the end of the division between commercial and investment banks.”
On the matter of failing effectively to regulate financial derivatives, Mr. Clinton writes, “I can be fairly criticized for not making a bigger public issue out of the need to regulate” them. But he adds the rationalization that he “couldn’t have done anything about it, because the Republican Congress was hostile to all regulations, going so far as to threaten to leave the S.E.C. with no budget because the commissioner, Arthur Levitt, was vigilant in doing his job.”
As reporters have frequently pointed out, Mr. Clinton has always been an omnivorous reader of books, journalism, academic and governmental studies, and adept at drawing useful connections among highly disparate subjects. His prescriptions here for creating jobs and addressing the debt problem reflect those habits, while hewing to a basically centrist outlook.
Mr. Clinton lays out various ideas for increasing bank lending and corporate investment, unwinding the mortgage mess and amending tax laws to give corporations incentives to bring more money back to the United States.
Some of his proposals simply ratify initiatives advanced by the Obama administration, including payroll tax cuts, infrastructure investment and student loan programs. Some — regarding, say, Social Security — are little more than assessments of recommendations made by the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles debt commission. And some — like streamlining regulation, investing in job training and allowing gifted young immigrants to fill so-called STEM jobs (in science, technology, engineering and mathematics) that can’t be filled by Americans — echo proposals set forth by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York in a 2010 speech about promoting long-term economic growth.
As for Mr. Clinton’s more original-sounding ideas, a handful may seem intriguing on paper but are vague and not so easily achieved: for instance, “export more services,” or emulate Germany by concentrating “on high-end manufacturing and getting smaller companies into exports.”
Other proposals seem hard to imagine ever being effectively or enthusiastically implemented, among them working to make one or two states (like Nevada with its enormous solar and wind capacity) “completely energy independent” by “maximizing their capacity to produce and consume energy,” or imposing a “value-added tax” that would “help to increase our exports” and make “our products more affordable in other markets.”
Mr. Clinton makes it perfectly clear that some of the ideas he has thrown out in these pages are hastily jotted down thoughts that require further investigation. At one point he says he doesn’t know “if the Fed has legal authority to invest in an infrastructure bank that would pay back the investment plus interest, but if it is legal to do so, I think it’s a good idea.”
In the end this book seems meant less as a detailed blueprint for job creation than a catalyst for getting people to focus on the serious issues facing the United States — which Mr. Clinton says is “in a mess now” — and the necessity of doing so right away. Reviewing the alarming and by now familiar statistics that show America falling behind in high school and college graduation rates, science and math scores and income mobility, Mr. Clinton writes that “the troubling thing about all these rankings” is “not what they say about where we are but what they reveal about where we’re going.” He adds, “We simply are not doing what we have to do to stay ahead of the competition for good jobs, new businesses, and breakthrough innovations.”
Not facing up to such inconvenient facts, Mr. Clinton notes, is part of the problem. Or, “As my daughter and her friends used to say when they were younger, ‘Denial is not just a river in Egypt.’ ”