CHARLOTTE — Four years ago in Denver, Bill Clinton was given the assignment of making the world believe that he liked Barack Obama and wanted him to be president. As one longtime confidant put it, “He had to go out there and say, ‘Yeah, Obama beat the blank out of me and my wife, but still, you should be with him.’ ” But that was then.
On Wednesday night here, Clinton will be tasked with a mission that has largely frustrated President Obama: Cut through the political clutter and clarify the choice in November. Explain, in his inimitable way, in language that persuadable voters in middle-class America can understand, what Obama has accomplished and why his economic policies would pull the nation out of tough times and GOP alternatives would not.
There is nothing formulaic about Clinton’s presence at the Democratic National Convention this year. He is not just another old presidential war horse being trotted out for nostalgia or a staged show of unity. When Obama called in late July to say he would be grateful if his Democratic predecessor would give the speech placing his name in nomination, something that no former commander in chief has done before, it was an acknowledgment of how much the sitting president needs the former president. And Clinton, who loves to be needed as much as he needs to be loved, responded with an enthusiasm and diligence that served as yet another signal to people close to both men that an old wound has for the most part been healed.
“He is honored that Obama asked him to do it,” said Terry McAuliffe, a former Democratic National Committee chairman. In late August, McAuliffe spent a few days with the Clintons at a beach house in East Hampton, N.Y., and said his close friend seemed obsessed with the convention assignment, continually bringing up books and quotes and ideas he was sifting through. “This speech is very important to him. He has taken the burden and put it on his shoulders.”
The convention speech, which people around Clinton say he is largely writing himself, is part of a full-scale Bill Clinton offensive that includes a series of political ads — now playing in key swing states — that feature the former president offering snippets of the themes he will expand on Wednesday. Obama’s team views this in the most positive light, noting Clinton’s talents and soaring popularity, but history shows the occasional dangers. In late May, as the Obama team was pounding away at Republican challenger Mitt Romney’s role at Bain Capital, Clinton said of the private-equity firm: “I don’t think we ought to get into a position where we say this is bad work. This is good work.” If he was all too public in his critique, it was classic Clinton as campaign manager, sending the message to the Obama team that there are ways to go after working-class voters without alienating the financial industry, a subtlety he mastered in his heyday.
The Clinton-Obama divide four years ago was political and personal. It began during the intense and at times nasty primary campaign between Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton as intimations of racism were thrown back and forth, a sure sign of competitive overreaching involving two men (the former president was asserting himself in his wife’s campaign at that point) with strong though different bona fides on matters of race — Clinton so empathetic that he was once called the first black president, Obama on his way to becoming the real first black president. That campaign-season animosity was accentuated by diametrically disparate individual styles. Presidents 42 and 44, separated in age by 15 years on opposite ends of the baby-boom generation, have been called matter and antimatter, fire and ice, extrovert and introvert.