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Clinton Gives Advice on Democratic Path to Victory

September 22, 2010 at 5:41 PM EST
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Former President Bill Clinton spoke with Judy Woodruff Wednesday about what President Obama and Democrats must do to sell their message to voters this fall, what the Clinton Global Initiative plans to do to promote job growth in the U.S. and how Haiti's quake-recovery efforts are going.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: President Clinton, thank you very much for talking with us.

FORMER PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: Glad to do it, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We are here at the hotel in New York where the Clinton Global Initiative is meeting. For the last five years, the main focus has been on developing countries — the rest of the world.

This year, you’ve expanded the focus to this country, your home country — a struggling economy, the need to create jobs. Why do you think — well over a year after the recession ended — the economy still hasn’t taken off here?

BILL CLINTON: Because of the nature of this recession, primarily, and because of the way it played out in people’s lives. Let me just give you a couple of examples. We lost about $3 trillion in immediate economic activity. We actually have done a better job coming out of it in the last year than other countries have. We’ve recovered 70 percent of our GDP growth, Germany: 60 (percent), Japan: 50 (percent), the U.K.: 30 (percent).

But that’s not enough to get people back to work and everybody is still spooked. Banks have $1.8 trillion in cash now. The financial system was saved. That cash is uncommitted to loans. So, and then it takes a long time to start these new jobs. The stimulus bill did not fail, but only a third of the stimulus was ordered to creating new jobs and it’s going to have a big impact but there is a long lag time.

Then the final problem is … in the last decade, we dropped from first to 12th in the world with the percentage of our people with college degrees at the time when the difference between people with a college education without it got bigger. That is, the unemployment rate — the chart and all the press yesterday — the unemployment rate among non college graduates is about 11 percent and it’s right at 4 (percent) for those have degrees. And for the first time now, we’ve got posted job openings in America going up twice as fast as new hires. If we were just filling for those jobs with skilled people we’d have 5 million more people at work.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You know so many business leaders as well as political leaders, why do you believe that they are not using — you’ve said, I think — $1.6 trillion in cash they are sitting on in these businesses to create jobs?

BILL CLINTON: Well, the good news is they don’t want to spend the money overseas or they would have already done that because about 80 percent of this money — $1 trillion plus — is in the hands of 75 companies. And that’s one where probably neither party can give you the answer.

I think my party’s got the right answer on the job training and on where the jobs are growing in small business and manufacturing and green energy, and I think the financial oversight bill will lead to more lending in positive ways and I think repealing it, which the other side wants to do, will lead to more gambling — which got us in trouble in the first place.

But neither party has done this. I think that in order to answer your question really what we need to do is to interview those 75 companies that have 85 percent of this money and find out what it would take to get them to invest.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Because I’m asking because you know so many of these…

BILL CLINTON: I do.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is it your sense that they are justified in not spending the money to create jobs?

BILL CLINTON: Well, it’s not that they don’t want to. I mean let’s take Cisco. I talked to John Chambers today. They’ve actually created 6,000 jobs in America this year. But they’ve got a lot more money they can use.

I talked to another executive who’s got $1 billion in the bank said he could create 10,000 jobs tomorrow. He’s trying to determine what the new environment will cost him. That is, he wants to know over the next five years what are his taxes, will he spend more or less for health care. If so, how much? What are the environmental rules going to be?

I think a lot of this is just settling down. People were so traumatized by all the horrible things that happened from, you know, after the financial meltdown in 2008, it was a real problem. But I think, that I think is a fairly easy, straightforward thing to do.

The real money though — the banks have multiple, so if they have $1.8 trillion in cash they could loan $18 trillion in money and end the global recession. The job training program

JUDY WOODRUFF: But that’s not happening either.

BILL CLINTON: No, but I think it will and I think that’s something. For example, the administration offered loan guarantees for clean energy projects. I think that we need to have some effort to broaden those loan guarantees so that banks feel comfortable lending that money again. They are just not sure what’s going to happen in the other economy. But I think that will happen and that’s really critical. That’s where the real, real money is.

JUDY WOODRUFF: While we’re on the economy let me quickly ask you about the news yesterday that Larry Summers, the presidents’ economic .. the head of his economic council was leaving. You know Larry Summers well. He was your Treasury secretary. This is the third senior economic figure in this administration to go at a time of great fragility in the economy. Is this something we should be worried about?

BILL CLINTON: No, not necessarily. I’m embarrassed to say that I’ve been so in my little cocoon I didn’t see it. I think the macroeconomic framework of the administration has set — I don’t think there is any question that even though it was controversial saving the financial system, having the Federal Reserve keep interest rates near zero and passing that stimulus which performed better, not worse than it was predicted to, has saved millions of jobs. Now people don’t feel that yet because we’re not growing jobs.

And I’m not saying that because I think that people should be grateful to the president and the Congress. I’m just saying these people stopped the hemorrhaging and I think we all know what we have to do built out, so I think Larry may feel that he’s done the major thing that he was supposed to do, which was to stop the wheels from coming off the track.

And now I think what we need to do is practice what an economist will call microeconomics — the art of the deal. We need to figure out where we are going to grow jobs and how we are going to grow them and I believe that we will be able to do that if you, and I think this creates an opportunity for the president to bring in some people like Erskine Bowles who financed new businesses for 20 years or people who ran businesses or people who understand how to turn this energy thing into a huge opportunity to create jobs.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And speaking of jobs, let’s talk about the CGI for a moment. You are seeking commitments here from people to create jobs in the United States. Tell us exactly what your goal is. What kind of commitment of jobs?

BILL CLINTON: Well, keep in mind we don’t have anything like as much money as you find in corporate treasuries or bank accounts or the federal government. Our goal here is to create jobs in a way that shows a simple model that can be embraced by the business community, or by governments or both.

So let me give you probably the most elemental example. Last year was a tough year for young people that need summer jobs to support their families or pay for college, because companies didn’t hire so many people for summer jobs.

So one of our projects will involves people mostly in upper Manhattan and Harlem and Washington Heights and groups going to hire young people for summer jobs or after-school jobs to work on retrofitting buildings and making them more efficient. It’s very inexpensive. They might do something as simple as change the lights. It might be something as simple as whitewash the black tar roofs, but this is something you can do in every city in America, create of thousands and thousands of jobs.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I want to ask you about another issue you are obviously talking about here. Haiti — you are the U.N. special envoy. You have taken a great personal interest in Haiti since the terrible earthquake there. Why is it taking so long, in a nutshell, for that country to get back on its feet?

BILL CLINTON: I would say three reasons. First of all everyone needs to understand that the third of the country that was devastated — 35 percent of the population was all in the city, concentrated, and housing always takes longer. When I became president, Hurricane Andrew, we still had people in temporary housing in Florida a year later. Second, Haiti had no mortgage system. The ownership was unclear and we got the streets full of rubble and the need to rebuild the infrastructure like water and sewer. Third, the donors are having their own economic problems and that’s slowing the flow of aid.

We are going to have a housing expo in October. We are going to have land set aside for building right outside the city center and I think you’ll see this thing really pick up in the next few months.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And once it does, does Haiti have the capacity to spend that money productively right now?

BILL CLINTON: Not right now, but that’s why we are trying to run it through a commission and organize how all the money will be spent and tell people every day on the internet who gave the money, who gets the money, and then promise them a performance audit from Pricewaterhouse when it’s over.

That is — and simultaneously, by the way Judy, we are building at capacity. A lot of people don’t know this but on the earthquake day, Haiti had 17 percent of its national government workforce killed. So it would be hard for America to get up the day after tomorrow — if tomorrow we lost 17 percent of the federal workforce — and do everything we are supposed to do.

They didn’t have a great deal of capacity to start with, so I think that under the circumstances we’re doing about as well as we can, but nobody’s happy. We’re going to have to do it faster and better.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Politics. I have to ask you about this. We are 5 and a half weeks away from the midterm elections, it’s looking like a tough reckoning for Democrats in November. Few people know the American electorate as well as you do. Can President Obama still get people to listen to him to get a message across? Or have people just stopped listening?

BILL CLINTON: Well, some have stopped listening. They do that. I found it myself. I told him the other day, as far as I could tell they hadn’t said anything about him they didn’t say about me in ’94. And part of it is just frustration because people don’t feel better. Then there is this larger — the Republican narrative against him has two points.

One is: They had 21 months to fix this mess, they didn’t fix this, put us back in. The larger narrative is he’s a closet socialist who wants to spread this bureaucratic government pall across the country and crush the spirit of liberty and individual initiative and small business vitality and it’s not American.

I think what he should say back is to their charge: They put us in a $3 trillion hole and 21 months wasn’t enough to get out of it. They dug, you gave them eight years to dig this hole, just give us two more years, give us four years to dig out of it. Just half what you gave them and if it’s not better you can throw us all out in two years. That is: people are angry and you need to do it.

But then I would advise him and all the Democrats to talk about what we are going to do now and ask them who is more likely to do it. In other words, if this is a referendum on people’s anger and apathy — so our side stays home and their side’s inside — we don’t do well. If it’s a choice between who is going to do what, we can do well. And that’s what I hope it will be.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But the president has been saying for some weeks, maybe months he has been saying the election is a choice between continuing with present policy or going back to the Republican policies of the last administration, and so far Democrats are not nearly as energized as Republicans, conservatives and certainly not as energized as the tea party.

BILL CLINTON: That is because he needs to explain, he and all of the Democrats each on their own — and I’d like to see some national advertising — explain why we didn’t get out of the hole, but then the stimulus it did more good than it was projected to do, not less. And talk about how, their position is inherently not tenable if you are thinking. I mean we had Republican presidents for 12 years before I became president. They quadrupled the national debt. We paid $600 billion down on the national debt. They could have stayed with the budget I had, we’d be out of debt by 2012. They only care about the deficit and spending when Democrats are in.

Instead of staying with my budget plan they went back to trickle-down economics. They doubled the debt all over again, before the financial meltdown. Before the meltdown, we only had 2 ½ million jobs — 10 percent as many as in my eight years. The American people say we don’t care, we’re angry, we’re frustrated — and they are buying all this. Our side is neither defended the — they just have taken these attacks without an effective defense. And since people are literally not feeling better, they may be going back to embracing the changes, the policies that got us in trouble.

Let me just give you one example. There was a big chart in the paper yesterday, unemployment among non college graduates almost 11 percent. Among college graduates 4 percent. Where new job openings are going up twice as fast as job hires because there is a big skills mismatch. OK. Here is one thing this election is about:

The Democrats support the student loan reform that makes it cheaper to finance a college education and gives every single college graduate from now on the right to pay their loan back as a small percentage of their income over 20 years. Massive economic significance. The Republicans are committed to repealing it, taking the money they were giving the students and giving it back to banks for basically no risk. In other words they are running on a promise to make it more expensive and harder to go to college, on a record that saw us drop from first to 12th in the world in the percentage of young adults who are college graduates for the first time since World War II.

And people want to be apathetic in the face of that, or do they want to vote for that? No, they say, ‘Bill I’m sorry that’s going to happen but I’m just so angry. I have to vote anyway.’ I mean we need to make this election about something real and clear and if it is than we should honorably embrace the results and not feel bad. I don’t think we’re putting up a good fight yet.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Not putting up a good fight. Well, one last question..

BILL CLINTON: The president’s out there now and I think it’s high time. And it’s good, and it’s good that he’s taken some shots. That’s what people want to see. They like to see their presidents get hit a little bit.

JUDY WOODRUFF: One last question, I’ve looked at your schedule over the next few weeks, you are slated to appear with a number of Democratic candidates. I am told you are going to be out on the road for much of the month of October. In fact, you are in greater demand in a number of these races, these competitive races, out on the trail than the president is. How do you explain that?

BILL CLINTON: Well, they always like you better when you’re gone. They always do. I think that, you know, and it may not be popular to say this is but what I honestly believe — I’m not running for anything anymore. I can’t run for anything. But I do spend an hour a day studying this economy. I love my country and I want us to do well.

I believe the president and the Congress have done better than the American people think. I’m not upset that they are not getting credit for it because Democrats get hired when the country is messed up and people hire us to fix things. People don’t feel better. They don’t feel things fixed. So it’s OK they are not getting credit for it.

But what the American people need to do is to do what’s best for themselves and their family. The only things that really matter are: what are we going to do now? And once you settle on that, who is more likely to do it? If the election is about that, I think we’ll do fine. Take a few licks in the marginal races that we shouldn’t probably have won anyway. If the election is about my anger, my apathy, my amnesia about who’s going to do what, then that’s a tough environment for us.

But the Republicans have been really very straightforward in what they want to do. It’s not just repeal health care. They want to repeal the student loan reform. They want to repeal the financial oversight. They want to move toward privatizing Social Security and Medicare. They want to do, in short, what they’ve wanted to do for 30 years.

And we now we had all this experience. It doubled the debt, produced 10 percent as many jobs as I did, got us in the mess we’re in. And so our answer is we’re going to throw the Democrats out after 21 months and bring back the people who made the decisions that put us in a hole in the first place?

I think what the Democrats need to say is: ‘we share your anger, we honor your anger. If we fail you throw us out but you gave them eight years, give us four. Just half as much as you gave them. Give us four. If it’s not better in two years, you can vote us all out. But give us enough time to get out of the hole and move America forward,’ and then say what you’re going to do. I think that’s the main chance they’ve got to make this a good election.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And they’ve got five weeks to do it in.

BILL CLINTON: Five weeks. That’s plenty of time. If you look at the, the one interesting thing is both parties are held in fairly low esteem and people just think ‘well if I throw the Democrats out maybe they’ll be forced to work together.’ In other words, it’s not really, but there is not much understanding of these specific differences in what they are offering to do.

And I think maybe the apathy vote is more important for the Republicans in their surging even in the tea party vote. The tea party vote, its manifestation is their base voters are going to show up. That always happens. Once you are out you feel more threatened, you get more energized, you want to show up.

What’s more important is that all those people who voted for the first time ever in 2006 and 2008 realize that this is not, there are no one-time miracle votes. Citizenship is a lifetime job and if you want to protect the votes that you cast and protect the policies you support, you’ve got to show up again and if don’t you can’t complain if you lose and everything you voted for is washed away. It’s your fault for staying home. That’s what people have to understand.

JUDY WOODRUFF: President Bill Clinton, thank you very much for talking with us. We appreciate it.

BILL CLINTON: Thanks.