For Barack Obama, the risk of Bill Clinton is worth the reward. Their sometimes awkward relationship will be showcased tonight when the former president takes the stage to place the current president’s name in nomination at the Democratic National Convention.
“There’s the possibility of Clinton outshining Obama,” said Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian at Rice University in Houston. “But that’s a minor fear if you’re Obama, to having Clinton embrace you in prime time.”
The relationship between the two men has long been a complicated one. Clinton, 66, often referred to as the Big Dog by fans and foes alike because of his stature in the party, was outraged by Obama’s treatment of his wife, Hillary Clinton, during the 2008 primary campaign and miffed he didn’t often seek his advice until after the Democrats’ losses in the 2010 midterm elections.
Brinkley said tension between past and present presidents isn’t unusual. Hillary Clinton’s role as secretary of state in the Obama administration has added a level of complexity to the relationship.
“It sort of forces camaraderie between Obama and Clinton,” he said. “They are not intimate or close or personal friends, but they are sort of forced to tolerate each other.”
The threat of losing the White House has united the two leaders, the most popular figures in their party in recent history. Still, Clinton’s prominent role in Obama’s re-election convention could remind voters of the booming economic times during the former president’s tenure in the 1990s.
Matthew Dowd, a Bloomberg analyst and political consultant, told those gathered yesterday at a Bloomberg-sponsored panel discussion near the convention site in Charlotte, North Carolina, that Obama’s campaign needs to be careful about contrasting Clinton and Obama too much.
There’s a chance undecided voters could say to themselves, “Barack Obama is not like that kind of president. He’s never going to be like that kind of president and maybe I’m going to try a new guy,” said Dowd, a former strategist for President George W. Bush.
“They have to be really careful with Bill Clinton,” he said. “I think they can overdo this.”
An Obama campaign spokeswoman yesterday played down the risk that voters would compare Obama to the more prosperous days of the Clinton administration, when the national unemployment rate dropped from above 7 percent to below 4 percent.
“He is somebody who can speak directly from experience, not only from his time as president in the ’90s, but also as somebody who’s been deeply involved in the last decade post-presidency about what we need to do to move this country forward,” re-election spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters traveling with Obama in Virginia.
Counter to typical protocol of vetting speeches well in advance of their convention delivery, Obama’s campaign hadn’t yet seen the text of Clinton’s speech as of early yesterday.
“But we have had lots of conversations with President Clinton and his team,” Jim Messina, Obama’s campaign manager said at a separate Bloomberg News breakfast in Charlotte. “He’s going to give a great speech tomorrow night.”
Stephanie Cutter, the deputy campaign manager, said at the same event that “someone in our organization is likely to see the speech before the president gives it, just because that’s normal course of business.”
Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney has himself tried to draw Bill Clinton into the campaign. The former Massachusetts governor has spoken favorably about the former president’s White House tenure in an effort to appeal to independent voters and show he doesn’t disparage all Democrats.
“President Obama tucked away the Clinton doctrine in his large drawer of discarded ideas, along with transparency and bipartisanship,” Romney said in Des Moines on May 15. “It’s enough to make you wonder if maybe it was a personal beef with the Clintons, but probably it runs much deeper than that.”
As is the case with many presidents, Clinton’s popularity has grown since he left office. Two-thirds of Americans have a favorable opinion of him, according to a Gallup poll in July.
Clinton could help Obama, 51, win over “white middle-class voters” in battleground states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, Brinkley said.
Credibility on Economy
“There is only one person in the world who knows how to put an economy back on its feet after a president named Bush and that’s Bill Clinton,” said Mary Anne Marsh, a Boston-based Democratic strategist, referring to the administration of President George H. W. Bush. “Given his credibility on the economy and with voters, it’s hard to imagine a better endorsement Barack Obama could get.”
Clinton’s speech is just part of a multi-faceted campaign effort on Obama’s behalf. He’s been drafted to serve as a prime surrogate for campaign events, pitched Obama’s economic policy, raised money, endorsed the president’s rescue of the U.S. auto industry and highlighted his killing of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
Like virtually any high-profile personality, Clinton can go off-message, too. During a May 31 CNN interview, he undercut the narrative Obama’s campaign has tried to build around Romney being interested only in profits when he was a private-equity executive, saying that a “man who has been governor and had a sterling business career crosses the qualification threshold.”
In a subsequent interview with PBS, Clinton said it’s “much more relevant” to look at what Romney did as governor and what he says he’d do as president.
In one of Obama’s campaign ads, Clinton frames the election as a “clear choice” between a Republican plan to cut taxes for upper-income earners and the president’s proposals to strengthen the middle class by spending more on education and job training.
“We need to keep going with his plan,” Clinton says in the ad, which ran 2,299 times from Aug. 24 to Aug. 27, according to New York-based Kantar Media’s CMAG, which tracks advertising. Another Obama campaign ad cites Clinton in its response to a Romney spot that says Obama wants to remove work requirements from welfare.
People knowledgeable about the relationship say that while the two are in a good place, it isn’t one described as overly warm. Obama and Clinton are respectful and friendly, without being effusive.