Bill Clinton once called Barack Obama the chief executor of good intentions.

Bill Clinton once called Obama the “chief executor of good intentions.” It was supposed to be a compliment.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker.

In going back through my past coverage of the Clinton and Obama relationship, I came across this extraordinary quote from the 42nd president about then-Sen. Obama. “If you have any doubt about Senator Obama’s ability to be the chief executive,” Clinton said at a rally in Kissimmee, Fla., “just look at all of you …. He has executed this campaign. He can be the chief executor of good intentions.”

That was from the first Obama/Clinton rally after the Democratic Unpleasantness in the 2008 primaries. Obama needed validation from the man who had held the office that the one-term senator with no executive experience could do the job. Now Clinton comes to Charlotte, N.C., tonight to make a similar case: that Obama has been doing the job. The problem is that this time there’s evidence.

In fact, the Clinton boast about Obama in that rally in 2008 is the Romney critique. He was the candidate of good intentions and let us all praise those intentions and give ourselves a break for believing in them, but he has been a bad executor.

Last night the story was about struggle. Americans don’t give up, and people in the middle class don’t give up, Michelle Obama seemed to say. So don’t give up on Barack Obama. Tonight we’ll get a variant on that. The Obama campaign has seized on Paul Ryan’s claim that “America is in decline.” What a pessimist! Don’t count America out, the Obama forces will say. We can do anything. (Well, except hold a rally in a 65,000-person stadium in the thunder and lightning, which is why the Obama fest tomorrow night has been moved indoors.)

This attack on Ryan seeks to use the Optimism spell (+5 attack against Trolls) that has, at various times been so effective in American politics. Ronald Reagan was the key wizard of optimism, and no candidate wants to be caught seeming like he’s not optimistic. That’s why George W. Bush’s 2000 convention speech—which included a critique of the Clinton administration—was a critique wrapped in a cushion of optimism. That the Obama team is playing the optimism card is another way—like the national security emphasis I wrote about last night—in which a Democratic incumbent uses Republican tropes against the GOP.

But mere optimism isn’t enough. The election is an argument over the ability to actually get things done. It’s the gap between good intentions and execution.


Read the rest of Slate’s coverage of the Democratic National Convention.