President Obama’s case for reelection was never going to be easy to make. People aren’t happy; his campaign has to convince Americans that they would be even unhappier if Obama hadn’t been in the Oval Office. Humans don’t naturally think against baselines, and Republicans have the comparatively easy task of encouraging voters not to bother. They get to point out that things aren’t great – and that man is president!
So, how do you argue Obama’s case? Ask Bill Clinton to make a speech in primetime in which he drops his “g”s and talks policy.
The former president walked on stage in Charlotte, N.C. Wednesday night with a slow, confident strut, giving thumbs up to the audience on his way to the microphone. Once there, he felt the pain of those dissatisfied with the economy – but he also directly attacked the Republican contention that America isn’t better off than it was four years ago.
“President Obama started with a much weaker economy than I did,” Clinton admitted.
Four years ago, he said, “We were losing 750,000 jobs a month”
“Are we losing that now?” he asked the audience.
“[Obama] put a floor under the crash, he began the long, hard road to recovery.”
Though Clinton used the tired line about how Republicans want to reinstate the policies that “got us into this mess,” he didn’t mention George W. Bush much, avoiding the trap of seeming fixated on the previous administration. Instead, Clinton tapped into a more reasonable sentiment, one that polls show Americans instinctively feel – that Obama was arguably dealt the toughest hand of any president since FDR. And Clinton rightly pointed out that Obama slugged the 2008-2009 economic free-fall in the gut with his stimulus and auto bailout.
The wide-ranging defense of the Obama record Clinton went on to mount had low moments, too. Obamacare, to be sure, is a real achievement, as is student-loan reform and new fuel-efficiency standards for cars. But even Clinton, an expert in studied credulity, didn’t quite seem to believe that Obama has already succeeded in laying “the foundation for a more modern, more well-balanced economy that will produce millions of good new jobs, vibrant new businesses, and lots of new wealth for the innovators,” or that this president would in a second term. For one thing, Clinton went on to describe the long-term perils of too much debt, admitting that the federal budget is still a shambles. No matter whom you blame for that, Obama would have a lot more foundational restructuring to do in a second term than he managed in his first.
Still, Clinton’s reminder of the terror of 2009, how Obama “stopped the slide into depression” and how the president had to govern with a poisonously sluggish housing market for the rest of his first term was effective and fair. Obama couldn’t do that with as much force, in part because it would have seemed so self-serving. But also because, despite his rhetorical gifts, Obama also doesn’t quite have that Clinton swagger.