A leadership lesson from Bill Clinton

By Nina Easton, senior editor at large


FORTUNE -- He's still got it. This week Bill Clinton showed an instinct for robust, inclusive leadership that the current White House occupant could use right now.

I know, I know. POTUS 42 was supposed to shut up, stay out of sight, and avoid second-guessing his wife's boss. After his ego blustered into oncoming traffic during Hillary's heated primary race against Obama, the nation (like its new President) suffered from yet another bout of Bill Clinton fatigue. His job as the Secretary of State's husband was to stick strictly within the confines of his foundation work.

But with President Obama struggling to contain the political damage from the Gulf Oil spill, Clinton not only can't help himself -- he's worth listening to.

The conventional-wisdom rap on President Obama's early reaction to the spill was that he didn't emote enough. He didn't feel the pain, Clinton-style, of all those whose livelihoods would be destroyed, whose pristine waters and wildlife would be drowned in black gunk.

Clinton thinks this is a "bum rap" but offers a different -- and more pointed -- lesson to his young successor. "I think we ought to row in the same boat for a while... Let's just fix the problem, and then we can hold everybody accountable and emote or not emote," Clinton told CNN Anchor Wolf Blitzer at the Fortune/Time/ CNN Global Economic Forum in Cape Town, South Africa.

Since Obama's first instinct after the oil spill was to "feel the blame" rather than "feel the pain," those are pretty tart words. No one wants to let BP (BP) management off the hook -- for dangerously cutting corners, for a dismal safety record, for being forced into accepting financial responsibility. But the President's initial focus on scolding BP consumed valuable White House energy while the oil gushed.

Great leaders don't rush to blame. They instinctively look for solutions. Rudy Giuliani rose from lame-duck New York mayor with a girlfriend problem to 9/11 hero when he took control of a crisis and instilled confidence that a ravaged city could move beyond a terrorist attack. He didn't stop to blame faulty intelligence for letting it happen.

Clinton demonstrates these same instincts. "The federal government's position ought to be very straightforward," he said. "The most important thing is to fix the leak -- and anybody that can help us fix the leak, I'm for it. The second most important thing is to keep the oil away from the shores. The third most important thing is to minimize the damage when of the oil that reaches shores.

"The fourth most important thing today is to figure out who did what wrong and hold them accountable -- whether it was somebody in BP or somebody in the U.S. government. I'll do that, but let's do one, two, and three first... What people want is to fix the leak," he said.

Most of the public thinks Obama got that chronology backwards -- which is one reason why his prime-time speech to rally the nation instead fell flat, prompting even Obama-supporters like the Huffington Post to dismiss his rhetoric as a "feeble call to action."

Carefully critiquing Obama

Clinton suggested President Obama may need to deploy the U.S. Navy to blow up the well -- with non-nuclear bombs -- "and cover the leak with piles and piles and piles of rock and debris." But short of that, Clinton said, "we are dependent on the technical expertise of these people from BP. They had 11 of their folks killed on that explosion. The people that are working on this -- whatever the managers did wrong or didn't -- they're good people, they're trying to do the right thing."

Clinton (being Clinton) cleverly wrapped his critique in a package of praise for Obama. You have to listen carefully, and sometimes read between the lines, to hear him break the no-second-guessing-the-President rule. For example, he applauded Obama for the decision to "finally" start taking help from other countries to stop the leak.

He called Obama a "brilliant, articulate, and exceedingly empathetic person," noting, "I did everything I could to defeat President Obama, and I wanted Hillary to win, but I think he's done a better job than he's given credit for."

The ex-President then veered toward the racial territory that got him in trouble during the presidential primary when he tried to explain Obama's cool, detached leadership style: "When he went into politics, he didn't want to sound like a fire-eating preacher for fear of being racially stereotyped."

But mostly Clinton's words were inclusive. Stopping to speak at the Global Forum in the midst of one of his many pro-presidency tours of Africa -- a prime target of his foundation's anti-poverty and health efforts -- Clinton found an opportunity to praise a man that the White House prefers to blame: George W. Bush. The Republican president, says Clinton, deserves enormous credit for his Africa AIDS initiative, giving millions access to life-saving medicine.

Clinton never shied away about attacking his political enemies -- just as they showed equal vigor in assailing him. And despite his cross-the-aisle campaign promises like "end welfare as we know it," he didn't seriously reach out to Republicans until they trounced his party in the 1994 midterms.

But he understood -- if not always, at least often -- the political limitations of blame. And the political self-interest of uniting a country to get something done.  To top of page