Bill Clinton speech: Did it clear way for Obama, or create a hurdle?

The Bill Clinton speech at the DNC was a tour de force. While President Obama can hold his own as an orator, there's a risk that voters could see a difference between Clinton's politics and Obama's.

David Goldman/AP
President Obama waved after former President Bill Clinton addressed the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., on Wednesday night.

Former President Bill Clinton has set the bar high – very high – for President Obama heading into his nomination acceptance speech Thursday night at the Democratic National Convention.

In his 48-minute stem-winder Wednesday, the former president showed everyone why he’s a master political communicator. He started slow, his voice a little thinner with age, but gradually pulled the Democratic faithful into his embrace with a sharp takedown of the Romney-Ryan ticket’s proposals and a better defense of Mr. Obama’s tenure than the president himself has been able to muster.

“He cleared the way for Obama to talk about the next four years,” says Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

But is there a risk to Obama in having to follow his popular Democratic predecessor? Mr. Clinton, after all, no longer has the responsibility of governing. And increasingly, he conjures memories of the pre-9/11 era of peace and prosperity, not the Monica Lewinsky scandal that led to his impeachment. The latest Gallup poll shows Clinton’s personal favorability among Americans at a sky-high 69 percent.

Perhaps, some analysts suggest, Obama will fail to convince voters – at least those who are still persuadable – that he is truly Clinton’s political heir.

“If voters don’t see a credible link between Obama and Clinton’s approaches to governance, then that’s a huge advantage for [Republican nominee Mitt] Romney,” former Republican strategist Dan Schnur told Hearst newspapers.

Mr. Jillson thinks Obama is up to the task of building on the Clinton address. “Obama is a great speaker, and so I don’t think he will suffer by comparison,” he says.

But everybody and his brother has advice for the current president, including those close to Clinton. In a column in The Hill newspaper, former Clinton adviser Lanny Davis flagged two Clinton themes that Obama should follow.  

“The first is the legacy of fiscal responsibility – appealing to those voters who consider themselves conservative on debt and deficit issues,” Mr. Davis said.

Obama should, for the first time, endorse the findings of the Simpson-Bowles deficit commission, Davis says. The commission, which Obama appointed and then left hanging after the co-chairs released their proposals, called for a combination of spending cuts and revenue enhancements to put the nation on a sounder fiscal path.

And, Davis says, Obama needs to learn how to work with the Republicans in Congress, after promising to rise above the politics of vitriol in 2008.

“Now in 2012, with a campaign slogan of going ‘forward,’ Obama can recommit to his past campaign of civility and hope and prove that Romney is wrong, but not evil,” Davis writes.

Of course, the partisanship that Clinton was able to overcome in the 1990s pales in comparison to the hyper-partisanship of today. But in January 2013, one reality is likely: If Obama does manage to win reelection, he will almost certainly face a Republican-controlled House again and a strong GOP caucus in the Senate, if not a Republican majority.

It’s no accident that GOP vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan praised Clinton on the stump in Iowa on Wednesday, the day Clinton spoke at the Democratic National Convention. Congressman Ryan lauded the Clinton administration for enacting welfare reform and spending reductions, examples of Clinton’s centrist Democratic approach.

Obama is more center-left than center-right, and Republicans are going to try to exploit any daylight between him and his predecessor. Clinton’s full-throated endorsement of Obama Wednesday night goes a long way toward presenting a picture of Democratic unity. But Obama is sitting on a knife’s edge in his close race with Romney. His party’s left wing has its own list of grievances against him, starting with the Wall Street bailout, and Obama has to be careful about alienating his base.

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