By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 19, 2010; 10:25 PM
They were once testy competitors. That was in 2008, when Obama was winning the Democratic presidential nomination and dousing Hillary Rodham Clinton's hopes of occupying the office her husband held for eight years. Bill Clinton took the defeat especially hard, and it was only with considerable effort that he and Obama were able to patch up their relationship.
Today they are allied in an increasingly urgent battle to prevent a Republican takeover of the House and the Senate. They are crisscrossing the country on behalf of embattled Democratic candidates and, in their own ways, trying to recall and recapture some of the glories of their own best days as politicians.
Obama's venue is the big, iconic rally that became the signature of his presidential campaign. On Sunday night, he drew a crowd of 35,000 at Ohio State University. It was almost as if the troubles of the past 20 months had never occurred.
For a few hours, it was 2008 all over again, from the recorded music loop blaring out Brooks and Dunn and Jackie Wilson to the playful banter between the president and first lady Michelle Obama to the enthusiasm of the youthful attendees.
Only when the president started to speak was it clear how the hope-and-change message of 2008 has given way to a defense of his record and a defensiveness about the fall campaign. "This is a difficult election," he said, something rarely heard two years ago. "This is hard. And it's hard because we've been through an incredibly difficult time as a nation."
After warning that Americans should be afraid of a return to a Republican majority, Obama said: "This election is not just about moving forward versus moving backward. It's also a contest between our deepest hopes and our deepest fears. And the other side is playing on fear. That's what they do."
Obama's mission in these recent weeks has been to fire up the voters who were so fired up two years ago but now are demoralized, disillusioned or just plain apathetic. Two years ago, his final rally in Columbus was on the grounds of the state capitol; Sunday's was on the campus because the Obama team worries that those young voters from 2008 are the most likely to sit out 2010.
Obama is part cheerleader, part preacher, part field organizer - looking for any argument to motivate Democrats. "The Empire is striking back," he said in reference to millions of dollars spent on ads, much from groups that are not required to disclose their donors. "And the only way to fight it, the only way to match their millions of dollars is all of you - millions of voices who are ready to finish what we started in 2008," he said. "That's where you come in. That's why you need to vote in this election."
Clinton's rallies are smaller but no less impressive, given that he lacks the trappings of the presidency and must rely on individual campaigns rather than the Democratic National Committee and the Obama network Organizing for America to build his crowds.
On Monday night, the former president appeared in Denver on behalf of Sen. Michael Bennet (Colo.), who is in a very competitive race against Republican Ken Buck. The evening rally, which did not end until 10, drew about 2,000 people, far more than the Bennet team had anticipated. Some in the audience came simply to see Clinton. It was like seeing Mick Jagger, said one Democrat as he awaited the former president's arrival.
Clinton delivered not a rousing pep talk but a learned lecture on the economy, the competing positions of Bennet and Buck, why he thinks Republicans are wrong and, repeatedly, what went right when he was president.
From job creation to deficit reduction to the size of the federal workforce, Clinton said, Republicans should take a page from what happened during his tenure, rather than adhering to the tax-cutting, free-market policies of the George W. Bush years.
On his own watch, he said, the nation created more than 22 million jobs, balanced the budget, paid down some of its debt and shrank the federal workforce. And Republicans should pay attention. "There's only one place they can look in the last 28 years to figure out what works," he said.
Clinton spoke for 42 minutes. He mixed humor and ridicule ("They've had everybody at their tea party but the Mad Hatter," he said of the Republicans) with sometimes mind-numbing analysis of the state of the economy. "I still spend an hour a day studying this economy," he said, and it was clear he wanted to share the fruits of that labor with the audience.
The address was long enough and late enough that a few people filed out as he was speaking. But there was a point to it all, and nearly everyone stayed until the end. Clinton said his mission was to arm the audience with the intellectual ammunition to go out and explain to others why they should vote for Bennet.
He carefully dissected the candidate's voting record, explaining why the stimulus package was the right medicine for the economy and why Republicans are wrong to say it didn't work. "The hole was $3 trillion deep," he said. "The stimulus was $800 billion." The stimulus "was not designed to get you out of the hole. It was to let you swim instead of drown down there."
Clinton explained why the new health-care law will help the economy, the deficit and ordinary Americans, why financial reform was necessary, and why student loan reforms will save taxpayers money - and cost some big interests. He was sarcastic in his criticism of powerful interests that he said are hiding behind organizations that don't require donor disclosure.
"I was raised to believe if you're going to disagree with someone, if you're going to criticize someone, stand up on your own two feet, look 'em dead in the eye, tell 'em who you are, tell 'em why you disagree," he said. "There's a reason they've got phony names and don't want you to know who they are. Because if you knew who they were, you'd know what they paid for the ads and what they hope to get for it."
If Obama's goal is to motivate the base, Clinton's style is to overwhelm the opposition with statistics, facts and details. He offers a package of persuasion that he hopes will be irresistible to voters.
After 1994, Clinton came to regret the partisan speeches he delivered in the final weeks of that campaign. Republicans at the time said his appearances were counterproductive, raising GOP numbers rather than rallying Democrats.
Obama may risk doing the same, but it is too early for postmortems. Who knows what will work? For now, Democrats have Obama and Clinton fully engaged in the struggle, united but in their own ways, in an uphill fight for the next 14 days.