Bill Clinton speech: Has he become Obama's defender-in-chief?

Wonkish, funny, and (gently) acerbic, the Bill Clinton speech Wednesday laid out a full defense of the Obama years, thrilled the Democratic convention crowd, and lasted 50-plus minutes.

Carolyn Kaster/AP
Former President Clinton addresses the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., on Wednesday.
J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Former President Clinton hugs President Obama after Mr. Clinton's speech at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., on Wednesday.

Has Bill Clinton become President Obama’s defender-in-chief? It sure seems like it following the rousing and partisan Wednesday night address to the Democratic National Convention. If there was a bottom line to speech reaction, it was this: Nobody but the Big Dog could have clearly laid out such a detailed (and lengthy) case for Obama’s reelection. That was a point on which Democrats and many Republicans agreed.

“Clinton made a stronger case for the president’s reelection than either Obama or his campaign have been able to muster,” wrote Fred Barnes in the conservative Weekly Standard on Thursday. (Not that Mr. Barnes agreed with many of Clinton’s points – more on that in a bit.)

From the moment he sauntered on stage to his signature Fleetwood Mac song, “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow," Clinton looked like a speaker delighted to have returned to the high reaches of the political game. As Jonathan Bernstein notes on his A plain blog about politics, the ex-president appeared energized by more than just the adulation of the crowd – though he loved that, too. Clinton seems to just love every aspect of the politician’s profession, including talking about policy.

“What he’s brilliant at doing is transforming [wonkish details] into something that can impress average voters by sounding like it’s extremely substantive while at the same time impressing policy folks by actually being extremely substantive, and (usually, and as far as I could hear tonight) factually honest,” wrote Mr. Bernstein.

For instance, Clinton laid the foundation for his defense of Obama’s economic record by citing facts and figures about the rate of job losses at the very end of George W. Bush’s term. He contrasted those with the slowly accumulating job gains under Obama, admitted that wasn’t enough, and tied the whole thing to the administration’s attempts to jump-start investment in solar energy and other developing technologies.

“He inherited a deeply damaged economy, put a floor under the crash, began the long hard road to recovery, and laid the foundation for a more modern, more well-balanced economy that will produce millions of good new jobs,” said Clinton. “Conditions are improving and if you’ll renew the president’s contract, you will feel it.”

The last president to preside over sustained economy growth also summed up the Democratic attempt to blame things on Bush, though he didn’t invoke Bush’s name directly.

“In Tampa, the Republican argument against the president’s reelection was pretty simple: We left him a total mess, he hasn’t finished cleaning it up yet, so fire him and put us back in.”

Then he turned to a sustained attack on the GOP, of the I’m-doing-this-more-in-sadness-than-in-anger variety. He tried to make a case that Obama has been willing to compromise and work across the aisle, in the process using the fact of his wife Hillary’s appointment as Secretary of State as evidence that the incumbent is willing to work with his political foes. Of course she’s a Democrat, but you’d hardly have noticed that if you were caught up in the rhythm of Clinton’s argument.

He defined the GOP as a party controlled by its right wing and driven, not just by opposition to Obama, but by hatred.

“Democracy does not have to be a blood sport,” he said, to audience cheers.

And then the policy wonk appeared, and Clinton went point by point through the GOP’s arguments against Obama. On Medicare, he noted the VP nominee Paul Ryan’s budget contained the same reductions in expenditures as Obama pushed through with the Affordable Care Act. Congressman Ryan and nominee Mitt Romney now decry those reductions as dangerous to the program.

“It takes some brass to attack a guy for doing what you did,” said Clinton.

On Romney/Ryan’s budget plan, Clinton noted that they propose tax cuts as well as reductions. In essence, according to the ex-president, the Republicans are saying we need to climb out of our debt hole by first digging it deeper. On welfare, he decried GOP attack ads that assert Obama is gutting work requirements. Independent fact-checkers have widely judged those ads inaccurate.

“Their campaign pollster said, ‘We are not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers.' Now finally I can say: That is true,” said Clinton, to laughter from the crowd.

But in defending Obama’s record, Clinton implicitly abandoned his own, judged conservative Barnes. When he was in office, Clinton famously once said “the era of big government is over." But now he’s defending what the Weekly Standard writer calls Obama’s “hyper-liberalism."

“On top of that, the Clinton wing of the Democratic party – that is, pro-business moderates and conservatives – has all but vanished since Obama became president,” Barnes wrote.

Plus, Clinton’s speech was just long, and somewhat self-indulgent, said GOP critics.

“The speech went on and on and on, likely sending all but the fawning media off to bed,” wrote conservative Jennifer Rubin on her Washington Post Right Turn blog.

And Clinton may have led his party into a political trap. At one point, he asked the crowd if they thought they were better off than four years ago, and they responded with an overwhelming shout of “Yes!”

That’s a clip that could show up in Republican ads that attempt to portray the Obama administration and its defenders as out of touch with the US.

“In fact, most voters think they are worse off than four years ago,” writes National Journal's Ron Fournier.

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