Usually when a president visits his convention before his big night, it’s to kiss his wife. Barack Obama arrived a day early to hug Bill Clinton.
The Obama campaign got the picture of continuity it wanted for the front pages of the newspapers. If all campaigns are about the future, bringing in the popular former president was an attempt to use an envoy from past prosperity to explain why brighter days were just around the corner.
Clinton has now spoken for a total of more than five hours at Democratic conventions. It seemed at times that he was in the middle of a five-hour speech Wednesday night. The crowd of delegates and party stalwarts didn’t seem to mind. For the last five minutes of the speech, everyone in the auditorium stood to let his words fall on their faces. Clinton seemed to delight in the whole event, luxuriating in the speech like it was a vast terrycloth robe.
By the time Barack Obama arrived on the stage to receive a bow from the 42nd president, it seemed like it should have been Obama doing the bowing. He owed at least that to the man he once criticized as a middling historical figure but whose aura his campaign considered so powerful it was enough just to have Obama in the same picture frame with him.
Clinton’s speech had several parts: an answer to the question “Are you better off?,” a shaming of the modern GOP with the example set by past Republican presidents, and a deeper attempt to tie Obama’s policies to bedrock American values, a job Michelle Obama had begun the night before.
Paul Ryan said the Democrats have tried to duck the question “Are you better off?” Bill Clinton took the question on directly and at length. “Are we better off than we were when he took office, with an economy in free fall, losing 750,000 jobs a month? The answer is yes!” Clinton talked at length about the Recovery Act, the Affordable Care Act, and the auto-industry bailout. He linked Obama’s policies for education and job retraining to people’s anxieties about how they could get a job in an economy where the remaining jobs required more skill. If Clinton was building a bridge between the two presidencies, he spent a lot of time on the Obama side.
The message of Bill Clinton’s speech wasn’t just continuity; it was a foreshadowing of what was to come. He said he knew what Obama was going through because he had gone through it, too. “Our policies were working and the economy was growing but most people didn’t feel it yet.” He asked for patience. “If you’ll renew the president’s contract you will feel it.”
As Clinton explained how Obama’s student-loan policies would help people, he nodded to an argument I’ve heard a lot over the last few days. “Mitt Romney’s convention was all about success that was determined by what you earned,” said Tony Coelho, the former congressman and chairman of the Gore campaign.* “What about the success you can have as a teacher or a journalist or a fireman?” Clinton appealed to this sentiment when he said, “No one will have to turn down a job, as a teacher, a police officer, or a small town doctor because it doesn’t pay enough to make the debt payments.” This is a subtle but clever way to weave Obama’s policies right into the fabric of the middle-class sense of aspiration.
Clinton changed the metrics for this speech from the ones he used in 2008 at the Democratic convention. In that speech, he talked about declining incomes, poverty, inequality, and foreclosures, areas that have either gotten worse or not gotten much better under Obama.
Clinton also launched full defenses against Republican attacks on Obama’s Medicare plans and the welfare waivers his administration has approved. “I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry,” he said in one of the few asides that wasn’t ad-libbed. (As you noted, Dave, Clinton spread ad-libbed material like grout throughout his remarks.) He also made a broader critique of the modern Republican Party, arguing that it was in the thrall of its most conservative elements. He lauded both Bush presidents and President Eisenhower in an attempt to shame current Republicans for their obstructionism and in a political bid to woo swing voters. He seemed to be trying to stir some life in the post-partisan pragmatic vision that Barack Obama had offered in 2008 by saying that despite all of the recent bitterness, Barack Obama was still committed to trying to work with Republicans who practiced that old strain of cooperative lawmaking.
There is a big debate in political circles about whether presidents can really persuade. Clinton gave a classic persuasion speech, treating his audience like it was listening, laying out the case with an argument behind it. Will it work? Do people listen to long-reasoned arguments anymore? Clinton certainly thinks so: “Folks, whether the American people believe what I just said or not may be the whole election. I just want you to know that I believe it. With all my heart, I believe it.”
In elections it’s easier to persuade than when you’re president. The choice is binary, but in the modern world of communication, what will live on in future news cycles?
In 2008, the tension between Barack Obama and President Clinton wasn’t just that Obama beat Clinton’s wife in the primaries. Obama downplayed President Clinton’s achievements as president. 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.” Now he is hoping that voters will see himself in line with that Clinton record. What he once cast away is now his life raft.
Tomorrow night President Obama will take the same stage and deliver his speech behind the same podium. He might be up a little late tonight tweaking his remarks. Clinton is a tough act to follow. It wasn’t supposed to be that way. Obama was going to speak in the vast Bank of America stadium outdoors, but the bad weather changed things. The sweeping plans to follow Bill Clinton were not to be. Obama will have to settle with a less grand result than he’d once envisioned. It’s an outcome not unlike the Obama presidency itself.
Read the rest of Slate’s coverage of the Democratic National Convention.
Correction, Sept. 6, 2012: This article originally misspelled Tony Coelho’s last name. (Return to the corrected sentence.)