Power player Bill Clinton to back Obama

2012-09-04 11:15
US President Barack Obama and former president Bill Clinton wave at supporters during a campaign event in New York. (AFP, File)

US President Barack Obama and former president Bill Clinton wave at supporters during a campaign event in New York. (AFP, File)

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Washington - Bill Clinton had only been an ex-president for a few hours, when he told a farewell rally: "I left the White House, but I'm still here."

He was as good as his word.

Clinton became the most politically active former US leader of modern times, and will lend his two-term legacy to President Barack Obama's re-election fight with a star turn on Wednesday at the Democratic National Convention.

The 42nd president's 1993-2001 White House years were marred by scandal, bitter duels with Republicans and the shame of impeachment.

But after the Great Recession, his presidency seems a golden age of peace and middle class prosperity.

Clinton is now as popular as the day he was inaugurated: Sixty-six percent of Americans approved of him in a recent CNN poll.

Master of critical audiences

That makes him a potent ally for Obama, despite the complex relationship between Clinton and the man who thwarted his wife's dreams of becoming America's first woman president.

Clinton, who often infuriated Americans but has retained their affection, is also masterful at courting critical audiences Obama struggles to reach, including white, working class men in swing states.

His appearance in Charlotte, North Carolina will help encapsulate the choice before Americans - a task at which even Republicans agree Clinton is supreme.

Clinton, at 66 years old, is only seven months older than Mitt Romney, and a powerful counter to the Republican's own convention performance, when he posed as a sorrowful elder declaring the younger Obama had not made the grade.

"[Obama] did the best he could with a lousy hand," Clinton said at a fundraiser for Obama in June.

"He will do better if the American people said, 'no, we don't want to go back to what got us in trouble in the first place. Give us a 21st century economy we can all be a part of'."

Instant credibility

Clinton will be at centre stage 20 years after his own nominating address in New York, which stressed his modest beginnings in Hope, Arkansas.

His argument then, as now: Republicans cast the middle class adrift.

Phil Singer, a senior strategist on Hillary Clinton's 2008 campaign, said the former president brings great value.

"His performance as president gives him instant credibility on the economy," Singer said.

"Over the 12 years since Clinton has left office, he has carved out an important place for himself in American life and is now universally acclaimed even by those who might once have disliked him."

Clinton, mainly active now in his global humanitarian foundation, is more than a party gray beard on a ceremonial tour.

Unsurpassed record


"Clinton is different... he is the fairly young former president - he must be polling really high because he is used in Romney ads," said Dan Shea, a political scientist at Colby College.

Romney's campaign has leveraged Clinton's popularity by contrasting the prosperity of the 1990s with Obama's America, and accuses the president of rolling back his predecessor's welfare reform.

"President Clinton has a record that President Obama simply cannot live up to," said Romney spokesperson Ryan Williams.

"Instead of running on his own abysmal record, Barack Obama is shamelessly trying to run on the record of his predecessor.

The Clinton-Obama relationship has rarely been easy, despite the former president's endorsement of Obama as a potential commander-in-chief in 2008.

Candidate Obama angered Clinton aides when he said he wanted to be a transformative president like Ronald Reagan, in an apparent slap at the only Democrat to win two terms since World War II.

Stylistic contrasts

Clinton once branded Obama's hope-fuelled campaign a "fairy tale".

But Obama's pick of Hillary Clinton as secretary of state and the synergy between Clinton's legacy and Obama's economic message brought them closer.

Clinton delivered a generous tribute to Obama in a campaign movie featuring the president's risky raid to kill Osama Bin Laden.

Stylistically, Obama and Clinton are contrasts - Bill Clinton breathes politics while Obama seems to disdain it.

When Obama rouses a crowd, its members feel an almost religious sense of being part of a movement greater than themselves. Everyone in a Clinton crowd feels he is addressing them alone.

Obama seeks a soaring pitch of emotion. Clinton peers over his spectacles and can frame an election in a couple of words.

Risks dwarf downside

But Clinton also brings risk: The downside of his legendary empathy can be self-indulgence, and Romney will pounce on any signs the ex-president is promoting himself and not Obama.

Clinton also sometimes seems a little off the pace of Twitter-age politics: He once praised Romney's business record, contradicting Obama's message.

His tirades at reporters during his wife's primary campaign hurt his reputation and he even faced charges of playing the race card against Obama.

But the risks of using Clinton seem dwarfed by the upside.

Perhaps, Clinton may chose to intertwine his own legacy with Obama's by reprising a line from his 1992 speech that contains a sentiment central to both of their political identities: "I still believe in a place called Hope."

Read more on:    barack obama  |  mitt romney  |  bill clinton  |  us  |  us elections 2012

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