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LAMBRO: Bill versus Barack

Clinton pummels Obama with blunt economic talk

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Bill Clinton continues to distance himself from some of Barack Obama's policy positions, firing off opinions that have ticked off the White House and the president's re-election campaign.

The former president lobbed his latest missile Tuesday when he urged Mr. Obama to temporarily extend George W. Bush's tax cuts that are due to expire the end of this year, including the two top tax rates for the nation's wealthiest income earners.

That was rank heresy, as far as the White House was concerned. But when Mr. Clinton used the word "recession" to talk about the economy, that violated the party line that we are in "a recovery," something many if not most Americans do not believe, according to a Gallup Poll.

Mr. Obama has steadfastly opposed the lower tax rates for Americans earning more than $250,000 and has shown no sign of backing away from his position, despite opposition from Republicans who want the tax cuts made permanent.

The end of the year expiration date has put the nation on a perilous course that many economists say is headed toward a fiscal cliff at a time when the economy is slowing down and unemployment is rising.

Not only will everyone's income taxes go up in January, but so will the Social Security payroll tax, which has been temporarily reduced to 4 percent to boost the economy but will revert back to 6 percent, unless it, too, is extended.

At the same time that taxes will rise sharply, $1.2 trillion in automatic spending cuts will also take place if Congress can't work out an end-of-the-year deficit-cutting plan.

But Mr. Clinton said in an interview on CNBC's "Closing Bell" with Maria Bartiromo that a long-term agreement most likely can't be reached in the lame-duck session after the election and will have to be put off until sometime next year.

"What I think we need to do is to find some way to avoid the fiscal cliff, to avoid doing anything that would contract the economy now, and then deal with what's necessary in the long-term debt-reduction plans as soon as they can, which presumably would be after the election," he said.

"They will probably have to put everything off until early next year. That's probably the best thing to do right now," he added.

Republicans cheered Mr. Clinton's remarks, saying they supported the GOP's position to keep the Bush tax cuts in place right now. "Even Bill Clinton came out for it, before he was against it," House Speaker John A. Boehner said.

The White House declined comment, but it's clear that Mr. Obama's advisers and campaign strategists considered his remarks "off message." Nameless officials "pointed out that Mr. Obama has said repeatedly that he would not extend the Bush tax cuts for higher earners," The Washington Post reported.

But it seemed clear the president's advisers were not happy about his unsolicited advice and communicated that to Mr. Clinton's office. Not long after his interview, the former president's spokesman Matt McKenna released a brief statement explaining his remarks, but not backing away from what he said.

"In the interview, he simply said that he doubted that a long-term agreement on spending cuts and revenues would be reached until after the election," the statement said.

"Later, in the interview, he said government spending levels were higher and revenues were lower than they would normally be because there was a recession and we're still living with the aftermath of it."

Even so, the statement insisted Mr. Clinton believes "we're not in a recession, even though we'd all like [economic] growth to be higher."

Whether that soothed the White House remains unclear at this point, but feelings between Mr. Obama and Mr. Clinton have not exactly been warm and cozy for some time now.

When Mr. Obama and his campaign high command were bashing his Republican rival, Mitt Romney, on his record as a business turnaround investor at Bain Capital, Mr. Clinton went to Mr. Romney's defense.

He called Mr. Romney "a man who's been governor and had a sterling business career."

But these criticisms of Mr. Obama's political and policy strategies are not isolated instances.

In a book on economic policy Mr. Clinton wrote last year, he didn't mince words about the Obama economy that was then in its third dismal year and barely growing at a feeble 1.7 percent. "We're in a mess now," Mr. Clinton wrote.

Even the book's title was a blunt rebuke of Mr. Obama's handling of the economy: "Back To Work: Why We Need Smart Government for a Strong Economy."

He seemed to be suggesting that in the third year of Mr. Obama's presidency, he still hadn't put the country back to work, that his economic policies were not smart, and that the economy was still weak.

What Mr. Clinton especially disliked was Mr. Obama's attacks on Wall Street executives and wealthy big business CEOs. "Many of them supported me when I raised their taxes in 1993, because I didn't attack them for their success," he wrote at the time.

And then there was this comment from the political master that had Mr. Obama's high command rolling their eyes: "It is heartening that people all over the world want to pursue their version of the American Dream but troubling that others are doing a better job than we are of providing it to their people."

While Mr. Obama last year was still pursuing his ideological obsession to raise income taxes in a still-anemic, high-unemployment economy, Mr. Clinton was publicly bashing that policy, too.

"I personally don't believe we ought to be raising taxes or cutting spending, either one, until we get this economy off the ground," he said last fall in an interview with Newsmax.

Mr. Clinton still thinks, his latest statement notwithstanding, that the Obama economy has yet to get off the ground and we're likely to hear more from him on that score in the weeks to come.

Donald Lambro is a syndicated columnist and former chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.

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