KISSIMMEE, Fla.—The all-drama president came to testify on behalf of the no-drama candidate. Wednesday night at a chilly outdoor rally under a cloudless sky, Bill Clinton joined Barack Obama for the first time of the election season. You may have remembered that there was once tension, upset, and anger between the two. Obama supporters claimed Clinton had tried to use Obama’s race against him. Clinton was outraged at the charge. All was forgiven in a man-hug.
When Clinton was a candidate, he loved to campaign late into the night, so it was fitting that he took the stage at 11:15 p.m. The former president went right to work, making the case for Obama and urging the audience to spread the word and work for his election. He testified to Obama’s temperament, highlighting his careful response to the economic crisis. “Before he said anything, he wanted to understand,” Clinton said, describing Obama’s process of deliberation. “If we have learned anything over the last eight years, it’s that we need a president who wants to understand. Who can understand.”
No one could question Clinton’s passion. At home, you wouldn’t have needed to have the sound up to get his message. Clinton pointed his finger into the crowd in his signature style almost immediately and kept at it, in what soon became a 13-minute festival of gesticulations. He spread his arms, clenched his fists, and put his hand to his heart. It looked like an exercise routine or a religion. When he illustrated the decline in family income that had taken place since he left office, he swept his hand in an arc like he was trying to describe the fall of a redwood.
During the primaries, when Clinton was campaigning for his wife, he warned audiences about good storytellers. “I could stand up and give you the prettiest speeches in the wide world,” he said, referring to Obama, “and I could give a pretty good one ‘cause I came out of a tradition of storytellers where we listened and learned how to tell stories.” But talk has to be backed up, he said, arguing that Hillary could do that better than her more eloquent opponent.
In Orlando, Clinton made the opposite argument. It was Obama’s campaign (built largely on pretty speeches) that proved he was ready for office. “If you have any doubt about Senator Obama’s ability to be the chief executive,” Clinton said, “just look at all of you. … He has executed this campaign. He can be the chief executor of good intentions.”
As Clinton spoke, Obama sat behind him on a stool, watching placidly and smiling occasionally. When Clinton’s testimony was done, Obama provided the symbol that captured the event. He shook Clinton’s hand and then embraced him.
Obama then embraced Clinton’s legacy. Throughout his Democratic primary fight with Hillary Clinton, Obama downplayed President Clinton’s achievements. He famously said Ronald Reagan was a more transformational president and blamed “Clintonism” for selling out Democratic principles in an orgy of what Obama called “triangulation and poll-driven politics.”
In Orlando, Obama was transformed. He boasted about the Clinton record—22 million new jobs and a rise in median wages—like he was a tour guide at his Little Rock library. To cap the praise shower, he heralded Clinton’s political move to the middle, saying that “one of his greatest contributions was to reconfigure the Democratic Party.”
As Clinton listened, he too showed no emotion until Obama botched a joke. As if to paper over the flub, Clinton erupted in laughter as if someone had suddenly put his stool on vibrate.
In the end, the event was politically transactional and a little underwhelming. I was expecting the two great political talkers to maybe engage in the equivalent of dueling guitars. But there were no transcendent moments. In fact, when Obama moved past the 25-minute mark in his speech and kept doling out new policy pronouncements on expanding broadband lines and labor provisions for trade deals, it started to feel as if his proximity to Clinton had infected him with a little of the former president’s verbosity.
Finally, though, Obama came back to his core message. He called on the audience to change politics by having “the strength and grace to bridge our divisions.” He wasn’t referring to the ugliness that once existed between himself and Bill Clinton, but he could easily have been. If this is how Obama bridges divisions with his enemies, we might expect that if he wins and he needs John McCain, the two former rivals will be bear hugging by springtime.