Bill Clinton’s tightrope: Lend Obama his halo without outshining him

Olivier Knox
The Ticket

CHARLOTTE, N.C.—President Barack Obama doesn't want the Bill Clinton of the 1988 Democratic National Convention to show up Wednesday at this year's party gathering in Charlotte. That Clinton got booed when he ran way over his allotted time.

He probably wouldn't be all that thrilled to see the Clinton from the 2000 convention either. That Clinton spent most of his speech taking a perhaps understandable victory lap for his eight years in office—and only then testifying to Vice President Al Gore's strengths. Check out the "Spinal Tap"-style hallway walk that begins at 8:35 in this video.

But when the Democratic Party's elder statesman—affectionately dubbed "the Big Dog" by some Democrats—takes the stage Wednesday at the Time Warner Cable Arena, Obama surely hopes the popular former president will help him portray the 2012 race against Mitt Romney as a choice between the policies preferred by Bill Clinton and those embraced by the two-term Republican who succeeded him, George W. Bush.

That's how Obama cast the choice between himself and Romney at an Aug. 14 stop in Oskaloosa, Iowa, painting the Republican nominee's tax cut plan as a rerun of Bush, who was all but absent from the Republican convention last week.

"They have tried to sell this kind of trickle-down fairy dust before," Obama said. "They tried it as recently as 2001, 2002, 2003. And what did we get? The most sluggish job growth in generations, incomes and wages going down, jobs going overseas, and a huge economic crisis—and, by the way, the deficits kept on going up so by the time I walked into office we had a trillion-dollar deficit."

He asked, "Why would we want to try that again?"

And Obama's economic plan? "We actually have tried that, too. We tried it under Bill Clinton, when we created 23 million new jobs, the biggest budget surplus in history," he said.

It's an argument Clinton is happy to make—and has already made repeatedly, as in this Obama campaign ad.

It's easy to see why Obama has cast citizen Clinton in a starring role in the 2012 campaign: The former president enjoys 66 percent approval ratings. That's well above the current president's numbers, which hover below the 50 percent mark seen as critical for incumbents. And Clinton is popular with working-class white voters that Obama has at times struggled to reach.

Democrats expect him to highlight how he faced stiff Republican opposition to his economic plans—and then oversaw historic growth—a potentially useful image at a time when Obama's jobs proposals have stalled in Congress. Clinton also governed in an era in which government deficits turned into surpluses, at a time when Obama's advisers project a $1.2 trillion shortfall in 2012.

"We feel very good about President Clinton's speech tomorrow night. It's a big moment for us," Obama campaign manager Jim Messina said Tuesday at a forum organized by ABC and Yahoo News. "He's a very credible messenger on this. He's going to give a very compelling speech."

Messina may have been thinking of Clinton's speech to the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver. After clashing with the Obama campaign frequently and often bitterly on behalf of his wife, Hillary Clinton, during the primaries, Clinton emerged as a potent surrogate for the Democratic nominee.

Greeted onstage by a wave of cheers and applause, Clinton quickly got down to business. "You know, I love this, and I thank you, but we have important work to do tonight. I am here first to support Barack Obama," he said.

"Last night, Hillary told us in no uncertain terms that she is going to do everything she can to elect Barack Obama. That makes two of us," he said.

The speech marked a turnaround in a sometimes difficult relationship, detailed in part in The New Yorker.

And it showed Clinton, who still relishes the spotlight, willing to shine it on someone else. (The more familiar Clinton showed up in the White House briefing room in December 2010 with Obama. After the current president took his leave, saying "I've been keeping the first lady waiting for about half an hour, so I'm going to take off," Clinton replied, "I don't want to make her mad, please go," and then stuck around for another dozen questions.)

Things have not always gone smoothly between the two men. Republicans seized on ambiguous comments earlier this year in which Clinton seemed to break with Obama on tax policy. And, at a time when Obama has been hammering away at Romney's record as the head of private equity firm Bain Capital, Clinton praised the former Massachusetts governor's "sterling" business credentials.

Romney's campaign even invoked Clinton in an ad attacking Obama's approach to welfare reform, an overhaul crafted by the former Democratic president and his Republican foes in Congress in 1996 over the objections of many liberal Democrats. But Clinton released a statement siding firmly with Obama and against the commercial.

Romney's camp plainly sees the political danger: Top adviser John Sununu penned an op-ed, published Wednesday in New Hampshire's Union Leader newspaper, dismissing Obama's right to claim the Clinton mantle.

"While President Obama and his allies would love to be able to borrow credibility from the nation's 42nd President, the contrast between Bill Clinton and Barack Obama—particularly when it comes to economic and fiscal issues—couldn't be greater," Sununu wrote.

While Clinton's speech might "induce nostalgia" for balanced budgets and bipartisan work like welfare reform, Sununu wrote, "President Obama doesn't simply depart from the Clinton legacy—he shatters it with a sledgehammer and runs over it with a steamroller."