Bill Clinton lends star power, Wall Street savvy to Obama fundraisers in N.Y.

Bill Clinton lent his star power to President Obama’s reelection campaign with a trio of fundraisers in New York on Monday, lauding the president’s handling of the economic downturn and warning that his defeat would be “calamitous” for the nation.

At the first event of the day, in the lavish Upper East Side townhouse of billionaire hedge fund founder Marc Lasry, Clinton and Obama spoke to about 50 wealthy donors, who each paid $40,000 to attend. Clinton defended Obama’s stewardship during a historic economic downturn, saying he has “made the best of a bad situation.”

In more forceful terms, the former president decried what would happen if Obama did not defeat his Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, in November.

“The alternative would be, in my opinion, calamitous for our country and the world,” Clinton said, speaking in a room lined with ornately framed oil paintings, including two that appeared to be works by the impressionist Edgar Degas. “Their economics are wrong-headed, and their politics are worse.”

Clinton has strong ties to wealthy New York donors, including those in the financial services sector, where some are disappointed in Obama ’s attacks on Romney’s record as a private-equity manager at Bain Capital.

Although Clinton tweaked the president just a few days ago for going after Romney’s business record, his connections to the financial industry could help Obama at a bumpy moment in his campaign. One of the former president’s legacies is his success in blending the traditional populism of the Democratic Party with a pro-business message.

Obama may want to use that legacy to help overcome dissatisfaction with his critiques of Bain — and with his stewardship of an economy about which business leaders and other voters remain pessimistic. In his remarks at the Lasry home, the president defended his view that government intervention in private enterprise is necessary, but he also asserted, in bolder terms than usual, that the market “is the best generator of wealth” and that “America’s business is business.”

“Government is not the ultimate source of our wealth and our freedom,” Obama said. But, he added, there are “certain investments we have to make to create a platform of opportunity for everyone.”

Making his case became a bit harder Friday, when employment numbers showed an uptick in the unemployment rate and a dramatic drop, to 69,000, in the number of new jobs in May. Derailing months of more robust job growth, the figures could undermine national confidence that Obama has pursued the right policies to stimulate a lasting economic recovery.

One of Clinton’s themes Monday was that Romney’s prescriptions would be worse.

“The Republican Congress and their nominee for president, Governor Romney, have adopted Europe’s economic policies,” he said. “Their economic policy is austerity and unemployment now, and then a long-term budget that would explode the debt when the economy recovers so the interest rates would be so high, nobody would be able to do anything.”

At a second event, which included a performance by singer Jon Bon Jovi, Clinton did a deeper dive into Obama’s first term, defending a range of actions by the president including signing the Affordable Care Act, making student loans more affordable, investing in clean energy and bailing out the auto industry.

“Who would have thought the Republicans would have embraced the austerity policies of what the Republicans derisively call old Europe?” Clinton asked at the event, at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel. Mockingly, he added: “They’ve got 11 percent unemployment — we can get up there if we work at it.”

The Obama campaign has no plans to back away from its Bain strategy, despite the urging of some business leaders and Democrats — including Clinton, who said in a CNN interview last week: “I don’t think that we ought to get into the position where we say this is bad work. This is good work.”

But the Obama camp has pivoted to a new line of attack that places less emphasis on Bain and more on Romney’s years as governor of Massachusetts. An Obama campaign Web site, RomneyEconomics.com, is now focused on his record in the state after debuting last month with a spotlight exclusively on Bain.

Clinton and Obama’s schedule Monday wrapped up with a Broadway concert. All told, the three events were expected to pull in between $3 million and $4 million. Obama’s Manhattan swing kicks off a week of fundraising that also is set to include stops in San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Among the invitees to the gala and concert were three Obama supporters and their guests who won the campaign’s “Dinner With Two Presidents” contest, modeled on the president’s successful fundraiser with actor George Clooney last month. The campaign has not said how much money the latest contest collected, but the Clooney event was estimated to have raised $15 million. For as little as $3, donors entered a sweepstakes to win a trip to Monday’s fundraisers and a meeting with Obama and Clinton.

A similar contest is underway for another star-studded event in New York next week at the home of actress Sarah Jessica Parker.

Proceeds from Monday’s events will go to the Obama Victory Fund, a joint fundraising committee of Obama for America, the Democratic National Committee and several state Democratic parties.

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