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At DNC, Biographer David Maraniss Compares Presidents Obama and Clinton

September 6, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
David Maraniss, author of "Barack Obama: The Story," compares Bill Clinton, "the great explainer," with President Obama the day after the former president delivered a rousing address on behalf of his Democratic successor. While Clinton enjoyed the politics of his term, posits Maraniss, Obama is more of a reflective learner.

GWEN IFILL: And now, for more on President Obama the man, we turn to David Maraniss, author of the book “Barack Obama: The Story” and an associate editor at The Washington Post.

David, thanks for joining us.

DAVID MARANISS, Author, “Barack Obama: The Story”: Thank you, Gwen. Good to be with you.

GWEN IFILL: You won a Pulitzer for writing about Bill Clinton, and you’re now working — you have just written this book about Barack Obama.

When you watched that scene on the stage last night, the big hug, what kind of intersection of two ambitious men did that present to you?

DAVID MARANISS: Events conspired to bring them together, basically.

And Bill Clinton, who loves to be needed, was very much needed by Barack Obama at that moment. And there was no doubt that he would come through. And he did. He did exactly what the Obama team wanted him to do, which was to be the great explainer.

GWEN IFILL: One of the things that Bill Clinton said last night was that this man seems cool on the outside, but he has the passion for America.

DAVID MARANISS: Do you know why he said that?


DAVID MARANISS: He took it from me.





DAVID MARANISS: It was in one of my columns.


DAVID MARANISS: But, no, it’s not about me. I’m sorry. But it’s true.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Very — we are going to have to ask President Clinton about that.

GWEN IFILL: Yes, we will.

DAVID MARANISS: I already have.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What about — the book you have written about Barack Obama — and we have talked to you about it — stops with his law school experience.


JUDY WOODRUFF: And you’re working on the next chapter of his life.

But based on what you know about this man, how different are their governing styles? And why do you think President Obama has had such a more difficult time than President Clinton did?

DAVID MARANISS: You know, I think, on policy, they are actually pretty close, although Clinton was able to frame things a little differently than President Obama has been.

Obviously, the culture has changed enormously, with the polarization. And some of it has to do with the fact, I think, that President Obama doesn’t have a transactional politician’s mentality. He’s more sort of looking back and looking at the surrealism of everything that’s going on, but at the same time he’s participating, whereas President Clinton could just plow right in.

But there’s been so much talk about how Clinton was so successful and President Obama wasn’t. Well, it was President Obama who passed the health care law. We shouldn’t forget that.

GWEN IFILL: And it was Bill Clinton who wasn’t able to pass the health care law.


GWEN IFILL: We can’t resist, however, comparing these two men.


GWEN IFILL: It’s really interesting, because on one hand, we first came to know Bill Clinton through his convention speeches, good and bad.

And he’s given nine consecutive convention speeches. We came to know Barack Obama through his convention speeches. So here we are on the night of another big one.

DAVID MARANISS: First of all, I would like to change the metaphor.

As much as I love Mark Shields as a metaphor guy, you don’t want Barack Obama playing baseball. He doesn’t play baseball very well.


JUDY WOODRUFF: Basketball.


JUDY WOODRUFF: Basketball is his game.

DAVID MARANISS: He’s got to make the shot.

And in 2004, when he gave the speech that made him famous, beforehand, hours before, he said: I’m not nervous. I’m going to make the shot.

He’s very competitive. Obviously, he’s got a lot to live up to tonight, with Michelle and Bill Clinton giving those speeches. But more than competing with them, he’s competing with what he wants his second term to be in history. And he’s very cool under pressure. So we will see. But I wouldn’t be surprised if he does it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Having spent as much time as you spent studying him, talking to so many people who know him, what kind of a learner is he? Do you have a sense of what he’s learned from his experience over the last four years?

DAVID MARANISS: Well, there was a lot to learn.

When you think about it, eight years before he became president, he’d gone to a convention out in L.A. and knew nobody. His credit card bounced. He had no experience. Then he went home. So he had a lot to learn very fast because he didn’t have that much experience.

I think that his personality is that he is a learner. Some politicians never change. They just become more so. I think that everything in his life has led him to constantly try to learn more.

And so I would expect his second term, even the way he performs, to be different than he did in the first term.

GWEN IFILL: But before he gets to the second term, he has to get through the next 60 days of this campaign.


GWEN IFILL: And what is it that you see when you look at him and Mitt Romney? From what you know about what you’re writing — been writing about Mitt Romney, how do you see them going head to head?

DAVID MARANISS: Well, they both have — neither one of them are Bill Clinton in terms of their ability to connect to people in the same way.

And they’re — I think that the debates will be very interesting, because they both have the tendency to be sort of technocratic in some ways in the way they approach problems. And I think it’s going to be really ugly, which doesn’t really have that much to do with either of them. It has to do with the massive amounts of money and the polarization of the country.

So in terms of the level of the rhetoric and of the campaign, I don’t think anybody should look forward to something.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But just very question, the “cool on the outside” piece, so does that mean…


JUDY WOODRUFF: … he is just going to stay cool, coast to this election? What’s your expectation?

DAVID MARANISS: No, no, because, remember, he has got the fire on the inside.


DAVID MARANISS: No, he’s very competitive.

He’s going to — I mean, this campaign means everything to him. In terms of whether he wants to be a great president, you have to have a second term. And he knows that. And so I don’t expect him to be — he will keep that outer cool, but I don’t expect him to just coast through this campaign.

GWEN IFILL: David Maraniss, author of “Barack Obama: The Story,” thanks for joining us.

DAVID MARANISS: Thank you, both.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Biographer of presidents.