The news that former President Bill Clinton will play a central role in next month’s Democratic National Convention in Charlotte is an acknowledgment by President Obama and his inner political circle of two things. First, that there is no better economic messenger in the party than the former president. And, second, that Obama needs Clinton.
“[Clinton] is incredibly effective at talking about the economy and reminds Americans of our last period of prosperity,” explained Howard Wolfson, the deputy mayor of New York City and a former senior adviser to then Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s 2008 presidential bid. Added another former senior Clinton adviser: “He’s the best speaker in the party and wildly popular with independents.”
With the economy dominant, the unemployment rate too high (and stagnant) and President Obama struggling to convince undecided voters that he has a plan to make things better, much will fall on Clinton to make the case for why economic-minded voters — particularly downscale whites in the Rust Belt — should choose the Democratic party.
In short: President Obama (and his team) know that they need Bill Clinton and, to their credit, they aren’t letting past conflicts get in the way of acknowledging that necessity.
The role of economic cheerleader-in-chief is one Clinton is intimately familiar with, having steered the nation’s economy for eight years during the 1990s and keeping a hand in the party’s economic messaging ever since.
Clinton has been a regular advice-giver to Obama on the economy throughout his term and has been particularly outspoken as it relates to the best way to drive a contrast on the issue with former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney.
It was Clinton, for example, who came up with the description of Romney’s economic plan as George Bush “on steroids” — a line that both President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden have come to use in their stump speeches.
“President Clinton can take apart the economic policies that turned his record surplus into a record deficit and lead to the worst economic crisis since the Depression,” said a Clinton adviser. “He can also validate the decisions President Obama has made to rebuild the economy from the middle out, not the top down, because he made those same decisions. ”
For a president and a party who must find a way to win an election where the unemployment rate looks almost certain to remain above eight percent and where a majority of the public disapproves of the incumbent’s handling of the economy, Clinton’s ability to frame the economic argument — and, in particular, make the case against Romney — is of critical importance.
The symbolic effect of placing Clinton in such an elevated role is one that both sides downplay but will not be lost on anyone within the Democratic party — or the political commentariat.
Clinton was clearly perturbed during the 2008 primary campaign at what he perceived to be Obama running against his (successful) approach to politics during the 1990s and let that anger slip on several occasions — most notably in the runup to and aftermath of the South Carolina primary.
Clinton allies note that such things have long been water under the bridge, pointing out that the former President not only spoke at the 2008 convention in support of Obama but has also been a regular presence on the fundraising circuit for much of the president’s first term in office.
All that being said, there will be some (many?) who see the decision to deputize Clinton so prominently as an attempt by the Obama team to finally heal old wounds by admitting that, yes, after all, they do need Bubba.
Given the economic hill that Obama has to climb in order to win a second term in 99 days, he’s going to need all the help that he can get — an odd position for a politician who has built his career as a solo artist.
Putting Clinton in such a critical role is a recognition of Obama’s new political reality — this ain’t 2008, after all — and, his team hopes, a way to put their best players on the field in the final moments of the campaign.
“Clinton on stage is not just a sign of party unity,” said Mo Elleithee, a Democratic consultant and former aide to Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid. “It’s a sign that we’re pumped, fired up and ready to go.”