From foe to ally: Why Bill Clinton is coming to Obama's rescue

Former President Clinton will make the case for a second Obama term at the DNC Wednesday night – the culmination of a stunning transformation of the two men's relationship.

Carolyn Kaster/AP/File
In this June photo, President Barack Obama and former President Bill Clinton wave to the crowd during a campaign event at the New Amsterdam Theater in New York.

Bill Clinton is in the building, and Democrats are eager to see their Elvis take the stage.

The former president will nominate President Obama for reelection Wednesday night – an unusual role for an ex-president – and deliver his best argument for four more years. As the Democrats’ most gifted politician, bar none, Mr. Clinton is expected to make the case for Mr. Obama better than Obama himself can.

Delegates from Clinton’s home state of Arkansas, who hosted the former president at a fundraiser here in Charlotte Tuesday night, have already had a taste of what he’ll say.

"This economy that [Obama] inherited was profoundly ruined. Nobody who's ever served – no one, including me – has ever been expected to turn it around overnight," Clinton said, according to The Huffington Post.

Clinton alluded to the 9 percent decline in GDP in the final quarter of 2008, right before Obama took office.

“That's almost Depression-level shrinkage,” he said. “And I'll give you the details tomorrow night, but that's quite a blow."

It’s the next part of Clinton’s argument that will matter more: Why Obama deserves four more years, and what he would do with that time. Last year, Clinton wrote an entire book about how to revive the American economy. He supported Obama’s jobs plan, which calls for investments in infrastructure, hiring more state and local workers, and middle-class tax cuts. And here’s the tricky part: He also backed the December 2010 recommendations of Obama's bipartisan Simpson-Bowles commission on deficit reduction. In perhaps the most pivotal moment of his presidency, Obama thanked the commission for its work, then did little with its plan.

Political tea-leaf watchers will be paying attention for any coded messages in Clinton’s rhetoric. Will he be trying somehow to undermine Obama, on the theory that a defeated Obama makes Clinton’s wife, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, the de facto head of the party – and therefore a strong contender for the 2016 presidential race?

Or, as the ultimate political animal, will the ex-president simply relish his moment in prime time, having been handed the task of deploying his prodigious skill to lift his party’s wounded incumbent across the finish line?

The fraught history of the Clintons and Obama makes the drama of Wednesday night all the more compelling. During the 2008 primaries, Clinton was accused more than once of making racially tinged comments in the battle royale for the Democratic nomination between Obama and Mrs. Clinton. Obama once praised Presidents Reagan for changing the trajectory of the nation in a way that Bill Clinton did not. The Clintons saw Obama as naive and inexperienced.

As reported by Ryan Lizza in this week’s New Yorker, the two men have come to an understanding based on mutual advantage: Clinton wants to be a player, and maybe most of all, wants his wife to run for president again. Obama needs the blessing and public support of the most successful Democratic president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Clinton governed during an era of peace and prosperity. His high favorable rating – the latest Gallup poll puts him at a personal best 69 percent – speaks to the respect he enjoys even among Republicans.

Clinton also can speak to white, working-class voters in a way that Obama struggles to. With the election in a virtual tie, anything that can move the needle – particularly in battleground states where Clinton did well in his 1992 and 1996 races, like Ohio, Colorado, and Wisconsin – is gold for Obama.

“Now that Obama has turned the campaign into something of a referendum on Clinton’s sterling record on the economy, Clinton can hardly complain,” Mr. Lizza writes. “That may be part of Obama’s strategy, too. Flattered by the attention, Clinton now has an incentive to work hard for Obama, who seems to have learned how to tame the former president.”

The article describes how the two men went from foes to, if not friends, at least allies in service to a larger cause: keeping a Democrat in the White House. They are, in many ways, completely different types. Clinton is gregarious to a fault, Obama is an introvert. That personality contrast may go a long way toward explaining Obama’s profound problems in navigating Congress, especially since the Republicans took over the House in the tea party-fueled midterms of 2010.

But they have one important trait in common: They are both fiercely competitive. Obama has long abandoned the assertion he made early in his presidency, that if he couldn’t fix the nation’s financial crisis in three years, “then there’s going to be a one-term proposition.” He wants to win.

Clinton likely will never become part of Obama’s “kitchen cabinet,” a small club dominated by the enforcer of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Valerie Jarrett. But if Obama wins a second term, he will likely be in Clinton’s debt. No president since Franklin Roosevelt has won reelection with such high unemployment – currently 8.3 percent, with the August figure coming out Friday. Now, given Clinton’s elder-statesman role in the reelection effort, an Obama victory will only add to the legend of Clinton.

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