Bill Clinton's new ad for Obama: Will it help or hurt?

With soaring public approval ratings, Bill Clinton calls on Americans to back Obama's economic plan. But he also puts the focus back on a struggling economy – uncertain terrain for Obama.

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

Former President Bill Clinton is the star of a new Obama campaign ad that directly addresses the issue voters say is their top priority: the economy.

In the 30-second spot the man some in the Democratic Party still call the “Big Dog” pretty much speaks constantly throughout. (That brings back memories, doesn’t it?) He says that “this election to me is about which candidate is more likely to return us to full employment."

He goes on to say that the Republicans want to cut taxes on upper-income people and deregulate industry, and “that’s what got us in trouble in the first place.” Meanwhile, President Obama has a plan “to rebuild American from the ground up, investing in education, innovation, and job training."

“That’s what happened when I was president. We need to keep going with his plan,” concludes Mr. Clinton.

Hmm. Will this approach help or hurt Mr. Obama? After all, some might say that talking about unemployment head-on could be dangerous for an incumbent when the jobless rate likely will top 8 percent for the foreseeable future. It’s a subject on which Mitt Romney has framed much of his campaigning.

The conservative web site Hot Air! hits this point Thursday with a post by Ed Morrissey titled “Clinton cuts ad touting Obama plan that Obama never talks about."

“Let’s give at least one cheer to former President Clinton – at least he’s talking about economic policy, even if he’s vague and misleading,” writes Mr. Morrissey.

Well, we think there are a number of things the Obama campaign is trying to accomplish with this spot. First is to simply associate the current president with Clinton nostalgia.

Right now Clinton’s favorability rating is 66 percent, according to Gallup. That’s up there with the approval ratings of Michelle Obama.

Plus, Americans now judge Clinton as among the best of recent US presidents. Sixty percent of respondents to a Gallup survey from February rated Clinton’s performance as outstanding or above average. Only Ronald Reagan ranked higher. No other chief executive from the last 40 years even comes close.

Seen in that context, the ad represents Obama running out one of his biggest weapons to talk about something central to the campaign.

Second, the ad reflects Obama’s long-term attempt to remind the public that the economy was already awful when he took office. That’s the purpose of the line “that’s what got us in trouble in the first place." (Of course, Republicans would argue that the 2008 recession stemmed from the collapse of a housing bubble partly created by federal government actions. That’s a part of the Clinton ad that Morrissey judges “misleading.")

Third, the half-minute spot presents the election as a choice between two existing and quite different approaches to the economy. That might sound obvious, but challengers to an incumbent president usually want the election to be a referendum on the incumbent’s job performance. Are things bad? Let’s fire this person and try someone else.

“What we’re seeing here, I believe, is the beginning of the Obama campaign’s pivot to a more concerted effort to draw a contrast between what an Obama second term would look like and what a Romney presidency would look like,” asserts liberal Greg Sargent Thursday on his Plum Line Washington Post blog.

Given a continued flat economy, it’s possible that this approach reflects a subtlety that will be lost on many voters. After all, polls have been remarkably stable for months, despite gaffes by both candidates, Romney’s pick of Paul Ryan as VP, Missouri Senate candidate Rep. Todd Akin's "legitimate rape" comment, and so forth.

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