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Bill George

Harvard Business School Professor, former Medtronic CEO

Is President Clinton Prepared to Lead?

An open letter to President Bill Clinton:

You are facing one of the leadership challenges of your life. You need to decide whether to put the interests of the United States and the world ahead of your personal interests. Doing so means setting aside getting your wife elected and maintaining control over the Democratic Party.

Only you – not former President Jimmy Carter, not Al Gore, not any other Democrat – can convince your wife that the country´s best interests dictate that she should abandon her failed attempt to become the country´s first female president. It is far more important that both of you dedicate the next five months to uniting your supporters behind the election of Senator Barack Obama as the next president of the United States.

That´s what leadership is all about.

No one can doubt that you have been a great leader for the U.S. and the world during the past sixteen years. The contrast of your presidency with that of President George W. Bush is so painful that it doesn´t merit recounting here. Yet through all of President Bush´s failed attempts to repudiate your accomplishments as president, you have stayed above the fray and dedicated yourself to make the world a better place, using your personal foundation as a vehicle. In so doing, you have gained the admiration of leaders throughout the world, including many of your former detractors.

One of your greatest qualities as president was facing reality: in 1994 you recognized that you had to abandon your wife´s flawed health care plan in order to save your presidency. On welfare you faced the reality that the welfare plans of the Democrats´ New Deal weren´t working and joined with Republicans to implement the welfare-to-work plan. On trade you faced the realities of globalization and supported free trade agreements like NAFTA and GATT, even while sacrificing the political support of the labor unions. On immigration you faced the reality that expanding visas for legal immigrants was critical for innovation, especially in the high tech industry. Your brilliant economic policies ignited to the greatest period of growth and innovation since the post-war period and even created a surplus for the federal budget, a dramatic contrast with President George W. Bush´s mammoth deficit spending.

Now you need to face the reality that your wife has already lost her bid to become the first woman president. The ultimate outcome of the primary campaign has been known since Senator Obama won ten consecutive elections in March.

All too late, Senator Clinton tried to remake her image from a Washington elitist who gained experience as your spouse into Rosie the Riveter, a tough-talking fighter who has endured sniper fire and advocates complex solutions for the working class and the elderly. To derail Obama´s campaign, she teamed with John McCain in attempting to pin an elitist label on Obama, who grew up with a single mother on food stamps and gave up the potential for the lucrative career as a Wall Street lawyer to work in the projects in Chicago´s south side.

Hillary played up racial fears about Obama by highlighting his associations with Reverend Jeremiah Wright and Louis Farrakhan and suggested that this devoted Christian was not a Muslim “as far as I know.” As she became more desperate, she reopened fears of September 11, threatened to “obliterate Iran,” and pandered to the electorate with her summer gas tax holiday that she knew would never come to pass. These actions earned her the support of Rush Limbaugh, whose crossover Republican voters, eager to keep these attacks on Senator Obama going, likely provided the margin of her slim victory in Indiana.

Regrettably, the result of her “scorched earth” campaign to destroy Senator Barack Obama´s bid to become the first non-white president has only helped Senator John McCain´s election bid and provided him with free video clips for the fall campaign. By pitting whites and Hispanics against blacks, old against young, blue collar against white collar, and women against men, she has employed the politics of “divide and conquer” instead of calling for national unity to restore our country to its former greatness.

If you really want to help our country, you will convince you wife to stop dragging out the inevitable and get behind Obama´s campaign to defeat John McCain while there is still time. Both you and your wife have proven themselves to be dedicated campaigners. Now you need to work just as hard to elect Senator Obama.

Although your time to lead the country has past, there is so much you can still do to help the world. But your most important leadership task now to help Barack Obama become your logical successor, because Obama is the only person who can unite the country to face the ever-increasing problems of the economy, racial divides, education, health care, energy and the environment, and poverty, while getting our troops out of Iraq and rebuilding our relationships with the rest of the world.