Feb. 19, 2009 -- Former President Bill Clinton gives President Barack Obama an "A" grade for his first month in office, but tells ABC News that Obama needs to put on a more positive face when speaking to the American people about the economy and must keep pressure on Republicans who try to obstruct his plans.
"Look, the American people, I think, know the president has tried to reach out to Republicans," Clinton told ABC News' Chris Cuomo. "And it takes two to tango. I think there are some of them who really believe that just-say-no politics is good politics.
"It was -- briefly, only briefly -- in the '90s. It isn't anymore," he added. "So, sooner or later, I think if he just keeps chugging along, just keeps the door open, invite 'em to every economic conference, invite 'em to every meeting, eventually, he'll start getting some votes" in Congress.
Clinton gives former President George W. Bush a harsh review on the economy, however, blaming the Republican for the current fiscal crisis by not moving sooner to help struggling homeowners avoid foreclosure.
"I personally believe, based on my experience over the years with the economy, that if we moved aggressively on this home problem a year and a half ago, even a year ago, as much as 90 percent of the current crisis could have been avoided," he said.
In a notable early showdown over a $787 billion economic stimulus proposal, only three Republicans in the Senate and none in the House of Representatives voted for the Obama-endorsed bill.
Regarding Obama's bleak warnings that "the economy could get worse before it gets better," and that the economic stimulus program is only the beginning of the end of the economic crisis, Clinton said, "I like the fact that he didn't come in and give us a bunch of happy talk. I'm glad he shot straight with us."
But he added, "I just want the American people to know that he's confident that we are gonna get out of this and he feels good about the long run."
Clinton thinks Obama should talk to the public in greater depth about the economy.
"I like trying to educate the American people about the dimensions and scope of this economic crisis," Clinton said. "I just would like him to end by saying that he is hopeful and completely convinced we're gonna come through this."
He added that though the economic problems are large, he expects the stimulus money to help.
"I think you will see some good economic news from the stimulus fairly soon," Clinton said. "I think you'll start to see people express gratitude for getting the unemployment benefits, the tax cuts and the food stamps. And you'll see the money flowing through the economy. Then I think you'll see every state be able to quantify how much better shape they're in, because of the education and health money."
Stimulus Good for Economy
Clinton, who presided over a balanced budget as president, said he views the $787 billion stimulus program as a "bridge over troubled water." He said he's not concerned with the massive amounts of spending in the legislation, because something needs to be done to revive the economy.
"I think it's absolutely the right thing to do," he said. "And I'm a fiscal conservative. You know, I balanced the budget. I paid $600 billion down on the debt to the American people. I don't like deficit spending. He has no choice. The economy is contracting. He has to prop it up."
Clinton Admits Mistakes
Though Clinton largely defended his own economic record, he admitted fault for lack of regulation on derivatives during his eight years as president, a problem some economists believe helped contribute to the nation's economic woes.
"I think we should have moved a little more aggressively on these derivatives," he said. "Alan Greenspan and others thought we shouldn't regulate, didn't need to regulate derivatives, 'cause they would only be bought by very large, very wealthy, very sophisticated institutional buyers.
"The problem is [that] if enough of 'em are bought, they become so much a part of the economy that if they crater, they still affect everybody else, anyway," he added. "So, I think I should have done more on that."
But the former president defended his record on another front: He disputed the idea that his administration, by placing a special emphasis on the Community Reinvestment Act, pressured lenders too hard to make loans to low-income Americans trying to secure mortgages.
"What I have disputed is that the conservatives are saying that I pressured the banks too hard to make loans in the community," Clinton said. "The banks that took money from their depositors and turned around and loaned money to their depositors -- genuine community banks -- came through this financial crisis much better than those that were branches of big national banks [that] took money from their depositors and put 'em in these shaky securities investments."
He suggested the worst damage was done during the Bush years.
"The sub-prime mortgages that caused all these problems were basically those that were gathered up in 2004 to 2007," Clinton said.
Obama Gets an 'A'
So, how does Clinton rate the new president's first month on the job?
"A," he told Cuomo. "They've gotten their stimulus through in record time, and I think in pretty good shape. Like I said, it may be a little ragged around the edges, but they'll be able to continue.
"You hire presidents to keep big bad things from happening," Clinton said, "or when something big and bad has happened, to fix it, and to seize big opportunities, and to push the country in the right direction, to keep working toward the more perfect union.
"And so, he comes in," Clinton continued, "he's got an economic crisis at home, and a crisis in America's role in the world. He has to pick people to deal with this. I think he picked excellent economic and national security teams."
The former president joked his grade may have been boosted by Obama's pick for one of those posts -- his wife, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
"You know, you have to discount for the fact that ... I give him a high rate for his choice of secretary of state," Clinton said. "That's an A-plus-plus."
But the overall grade might drop to "A," Clinton said, because he believes the Obama administration unnecessarily caved in to demands to remove a $7,500 credit for electric cars.
Clinton also used the interview to talk at length about the problem of obesity, the number one public health problem for American children, and an issue he has set his sights on after using his charitable foundation to take on big issues, such as worldwide AIDS and malaria.
"We actually are at risk of having the first generation of Americans to live shorter lives than their parents, because the obesity rates are so high among our young kids," Clinton said.
The solution to the epidimic, Clinton said, is for kids to eat better, eat less and exercise more.
He wants to take the fight to where the children are, so he said he's negotiated agrements with the beverage and snack food industries to reduce the aggregate calories on vending machine items in schools.
"We've been at this now for a couple of years," he said. "There is some evidence that all of the publicity and efforts that have been done may have caused the rate to level off.
"But that's not good enough," he added. "We got to take it down. We got to restore the health of our younger generation. And I intend to keep working on it until either we get the results or I can't do it anymore."