Bill Clinton: Trust Me, the Jobs Are Coming

Bill Clinton offered a brilliant and detailed defense of Barack Obama’s record on economic policy tonight. The speech was long and had almost bizarre levels of detail on job training, Medicare, Medicaid, welfare reform, and most every other major area of the federal budget.

But the core pitch in the speech was this:

I understand the challenge we face.  I know many Americans are still angry and frustrated with the economy.  Though employment is growing, banks are beginning to lend and even housing prices are picking up a bit, too many people don't feel it.

I experienced the same thing in 1994 and early 1995.  Our policies were working and the economy was growing but most people didn't feel it yet. By 1996, the economy was roaring, halfway through the longest peacetime expansion in American history.

President Obama started with a much weaker economy than I did.  No President -- not me or any of my predecessors could have repaired all the damage in just four years.  But conditions are improving and if you'll renew the President's contract you will feel it.

I believe that with all my heart.

And that’s really the best thing you can say about Obama on jobs: Trust me, they’re coming. It’s a line that only Bill Clinton could sell, and he did.

(Note, quotes in this post are from Clinton’s prepared remarks; he offered a lot of ad-libs during his actual delivery.)

Clinton, like many of the speakers at the convention, did a highlights tour of Obama’s jobs record: the stimulus, the auto bailouts, increases in energy production. But unlike most speakers, he gave a lot of information about how these programs worked and a detailed argument about why we would have been worse off without them.

More importantly, he made a case that Obama’s policies have laid groundwork for job growth to come. He talked about job training, programs to make it easier to go to college, and auto emissions regulations as initiatives that will provide jobs in the years to come.

Now, I don’t find this case entirely convincing. Obama has missed opportunities to drive job growth through monetary policy and housing policy, two major areas that Clinton did not discuss in his sprawling speech. And I’m particularly skeptical of the idea that tighter auto emissions standards, whatever their environmental merits, are going to create 500,000 jobs.

But you go to war with the jobs record you have, not the jobs record you want, and Clinton made the strongest case he could that Obama has done well, and that Republicans would have done worse.

About halfway through the speech, Clinton pivoted away from jobs and the economy to fiscal policy -- making the case for Obama and the Democrats on the Affordable Care Act, Medicare, Medicaid, welfare, deficits, and tax policy. This part of the speech was even stronger, particularly this:

Remember, Republican economic policies quadrupled the debt before I took office and doubled it after I left.  We simply can't afford to double-down on trickle-down.

Republicans put up a debt clock inside their convention hall in Tampa and have hammered Obama over the debt. Clinton made a strong case that Republicans have exploded the budget deficit in the past and would likely do so again, and that Democrats are the responsible stewards of the budget and major government programs.

Clinton’s remarks on Medicaid, just a single paragraph, are likely to change the health policy debate over the next two months. It’s weird: Romney has a plan that would devastate Medicaid, and almost nobody talks about it. As Clinton said:

They also want to block grant Medicaid and cut it by a third over the coming decade.  Of course, that will hurt poor kids, but that's not all.  Almost two-thirds of Medicaid is spent on nursing home care for seniors and on people with disabilities, including kids from middle class families, with special needs like Downs syndrome or Autism. I don't know how those families are going to deal with it. We can't let it happen.

The conventional wisdom is that Medicaid is a losing issue for the Democrats. But Clinton’s case for Medicaid is succinct, sympathetic and persuasive, and I expect to start hearing it more often.

Clinton also eviscerated Republican claims that Obama is trying to undo Clinton’s own welfare reforms. I didn’t love his Medicare remarks, which reiterated the strange claim that Obama cuts Medicare spending without cutting Medicare benefits. Yet his remarks were still less dishonest than those of almost anybody else who has discussed Medicare at either convention.

But the most significant part of the speech was the jobs defense. Clinton is the only living president who presided over a strong economic expansion. His sincere seal of approval on the Obama jobs record could go a long way with the “angry, frustrated voters” he was addressing.

(Josh Barro is lead writer for the Ticker. E-mail him and follow him on Twitter.)

Read more breaking commentary from Bloomberg View at the Ticker.

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