In a November 2011 interview, Bill Clinton declared that the midterm election one year prior was “devoid of fact.” He thus set out to inform Americans how we arrived in our current state of economic distress and political morass. Back to Work: Why We Need Smart Government For A Strong Recovery is his succinct and accurate treatment of these issues and a compilation of policy prescriptions to – as the book clearly hammers home – “get America back in the future business.”
Back to Work is a well-written, easily digestible work by an intelligent, informed man. It is divided into two parts: the first half offers Clinton’s political and economic history of the last 30 years and the second lists policies he would like to see enacted now to shake up the mired economy and provide a stable future for the nation. While the second part is useful for condensing practical, pragmatic, and progressive reform ideas into one very readable volume, the heavy intellectual lifting is done by Clinton in part one.
The opening part deftly frames the tactics Clinton later uses to lambaste both political parties for being counter-productive – in the event either side emerges from accomplishing nothing at all. (He offers a very pointed, shrewd analysis of the Democrats’ bungled political strategy in 2010.) Clinton correctly fingers 1980 as the watershed year that ushered in the paradigm in which American government operates. This, of course, refers to the revolution that brought Ronald Reagan to the presidency on a platform that declared government to be the problem, not the solution. The dominant question in this period, and this part of the book, has redefined the role of government. How big is too big? The resulting “antigovernment governance” both reflected and fed into a cultural change that still hangs specter-like over this country. Clinton writes eloquently and passionately on several occasions, such as the following:
Our nation was founded by citizens determined to resist – then break away from – an empire ruled by a government unaccountable to them. Our constitution, with its separation of powers and Bill of Rights, is designed to preserve liberty and protect us from abuse of government power. However, contrary to the current antigovernment movement’s claim to represent the intent of the framers, our founding fathers clearly intended to give us a government both limited and accountable enough to protect our liberties and strong and flexible enough to adapt to the challenges of each new era…In other words, our constitution was designed by people who were idealistic but not ideological [author’s italics].
Clinton goes on to describe unsuccessful policies promulgated by antigovernment supporters (he altogether avoids the term Reaganite) from both Republican and Democratic parties. He urges that the movement is philosophically flawed, and though generations of Americans put their faith in it, historical evidence only proves its failure. He narcissistically exempts himself and Barack Obama (through the first two years of his administration) from inclusion in the antigovernment era, as if the movement paused during those years. This is nonsense, of course, though Clinton can justifiably claim to have operated the only surplus-budget governments since this “small-government” revolution began. Despite this solecism, the criticisms of antigovernment governance are very strong. “Government may be part of the problem, but it has to be part of the solution.”
Back to Work contains some predictable, dry statistical regurgitation that helps Clinton build his argument that though American life is not in peril, its future might be. The book is very timely, clearly positioned for impact in the 2012 election; several references to 2011 politics will quickly date the book. Indeed, it seems somewhat hastily thrown together: several typographical errors, redundant stories and points (distinguishable from the catch phrases and sayings Clinton employs) and an upside-down chart of OECD education statistics are unfortunate editing oversights.
Part two of the book – which begins, “First, we need to get our game face on.” – offers worthwhile policy concepts for Americans to ponder, debate, tweak, and adopt. In fact, Clinton encourages engagement through suggesting the use of the social media hashtag #backtowork. I am curious to know how many of this book’s readers will take him up on this invitation. His 46 proposals range from tightening corporate tax loopholes (which, while still lowering rates, will increase corporate tax revenue) to growing our wind power capability (North Dakota alone could produce one-quarter of our national energy needs with wind turbines) to “buying American.” Many of them should be implemented immediately. Indeed, Clinton echoes current proposals offered by the president and members of Congress – he even credits Newt Gingrich with a good idea! Some of the ideas are more complex and a skeptic can easily foresee Republican opposition. Still, Clinton advertises his ideas as broadly appealing, and hopes that they will inspire bipartisan support.
In that November interview, Clinton spoke of the historical success of the non-governmental organization. “Cooperation,” he said, “works in real life.” Back to Work blends idealism, progressivism and pragmatism for the kind of policy-aimed book we expect from a former president. Both thoughtful and quick-hitting, it is not a timeless contribution to American political thought. Yet with it, Clinton has made useful arguments that should inspire Americans to pick up the torch for progressive reform.
Note: this review appeared in The Wagner Review on February 1, 2012.