The Closer

The former president is in Ohio to seal the deal. His message: The people who trusted him should love Obama even more.

Bill Clinton speaks during a campaign rally on Wednesday in Youngstown, Ohio.
Bill Clinton speaks during a campaign rally with Joe Biden on Wednesday in Youngstown, Ohio

Photo by John Moore/Getty Images.

CHILLICOTHE, Ohio—Nineteen-odd years ago, before he’d spent a full month in office, President Bill Clinton flew to this city of around 20,000 people for his first national town hall meeting. He introduced the local Democratic congressman, Ted Strickland, who’d flown in with him, and the business that supplied wheels for his “famous bus tours,” and some school officials. Then he got down to business with his first somewhat hostile crowd.

“Why are we denying the right to life for the 4,400 human beings a day and 1.6 million human beings a year in the murder of an abortion?” asked one voter.

“In your address to the joint session of Congress,” said another, “nothing was mentioned about tort reform.”

Clinton, in prime feel-your-pain mode, handled this with minimal difficulty. Each question could be dispatched with short lists of economic data, and when that failed, he could slip in an anecdote of real pain from somewhere in real America. “Salesman Clinton All but Clinches Deal,” reported the Baltimore Sun. In 1996, after some reversals, Clinton easily carried Chillicothe’s Ross County. No Democratic candidate for president has done so since.

On Thursday afternoon, while Barack Obama stumped in western states, Clinton returned to Chillicothe to save him. When I arrived at the local Ohio University complex, two hours before the start time, around 1,000 voters were already lined up to see him. A confused jogger stopped at the front of the line and ruefully asked who was coming.

“President Clinton,” said a man holding a copy of the president’s memoirs.

“Oh, Clinton?” said the jogger, replacing his iPod earbuds. “Cool!”

The people in the queue outdid one another with praise for Clinton. What was better with him in the White House? Everything. “You could walk across the street and get a job,” said Dean O’Brian. Fifty years old, he had lost a job at ConAgra at the end of the Bush years, struggled through some manual labor gigs, and this year, finally scored a job he liked—a managerial role at a company that produced doughnut ingredients. But everything was better under Clinton. “He’s up there with Kennedy as the best we’ve ever had,” said O’Brian.

Ross County is around 90 percent white, and so was the crowd at Clinton’s rally. John and Agatha Zikowski, 63 and 62, reminisced about how much better the city was when Clinton was president. Jeremy Brown, a 33-year-old software engineer, claimed that Clinton’s speech at the Democratic convention managed, all on its own, to convert his Republican friends to Obama voters. It didn’t last, but nothing Obama had ever done had swayed them. “As far as I’m concerned,” said Brown, “he’s our Camelot.”

“What’s Camelot?” said his daughter, Eliza.

“Oh, when Kennedy was president, they called it Camelot.”

As we talked, a rolling, trolling flatbed truck from the Ohio Republican Party rolled by and slowed down. It carried an electronic billboard with this message:

In Obama’s Economy, Every Ohioian’s Share of the National Debt: $51,000.

The Clinton crowd laughed and booed. “Clinton’s the only one who ever did anything about the debt!” said Joyce Childers, a 72-year-old Democratic volunteer. She wore a shirt mocking Obama “birthers,” with the slogan “Made in the USA,” and excitedly told me about driving Ted Strickland around when he was running for Congress and lacked a car, right before he and Clinton came to that town hall in Chillicothe.

Strickland was in the room again on Thursday, tasked with introducing the former president. Five years older than Clinton, the governor of the state until the Tea Party wave took him out in 2010, he talks like a politician one or two generations removed—his quavering voice, on tape, sounds like a recording of someone schlepping war bonds for the boys fighting up the boot against Mussolini. He quoted the scripture not once but twice—he has a master’s from divinity school—to condemn Mitt Romney. “As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he!” said Strickland. “And in that [47 percent] video, we saw something of Mitt Romney’s heart! And it was not a pretty picture!”

This sounded like raw, underdog, populist politics. When Clinton arrived, he cut the volume by at least 20 decibels. “I have lost my voice in the service of my president,” he said, croaking the words out. But Clinton doesn’t lose his voice like other people. As he talked, the croak disappeared. Ten minutes into the speech, it was gone. With no real skeptics in the audiences, Clinton would be, alternately Barack Obama’s Ambassador of Nostalgia and Secretary of Explaining Why Things Aren’t So Bad.

He did this, at first, by putting on a pair of enormous glasses and reading from the newspaper. “Here’s a headline from USA Today,” he said. “GM’s profit tops expectations. Another headline, which says Chrysler sales at five-year high. And then, there’s this from USA Today—when disaster strikes, voters put competence over ideology.”

Big cheers. Everybody intuited that “competence” meant their neighbors thinking harder about an Obama vote. He wasn’t their favorite president, but he’d tried hard enough. And Clinton could explain, at great length, what had worked. “Last week,” he said, “there was a big headline in the USA Today that said health care costs were the big reason that millions of middle class people did not get a pay raise in the last decade, because employers had to spend their profits on health insurance premiums. A lot of you had that experience, didn’t you?”

Sure, finding a job and, generally, being alive had been easier when Clinton was president. But all of those wonderful, wonky things that Clinton had wanted to do, that he’d promised in 1993—Obama had done them! They were just tough to explain. Medicare reform, for example. “Barack Obama did not weaken Medicare.” Explaining this meant walking the audience through health care reimbursement pricing.

“They start out at 114 percent of Medicare’s price, and drop something like to 112 percent. They guarantee 12 percent revenue. How many businesses in Chillicothe would love to get a guaranteed 12 percent revenue? If grocery stores got that, they’d be richer than Wal-Mart.”

Clinton kept talking, with no stab at anything like an applause line. The Democrats reacted like they were hearing applause lines anyway. I was sitting not far from a woman with a green shirt and the text “I’M IRISH! Do I Get a Free Drink?” who whooped at most of the wonky numbers and filmed what she could on an iPhone. The possible disaster, said Clinton, was an Obama loss that both undid the gains and let Romney take credit for the incipient recovery. Would Democrats really put up with the backlash and never get the credit?

This went on for 45 minutes. It wasn’t clear what it would do for Obama. The only “news” Clinton made all day Thursday was a verbal flub at an earlier stop, accidentally saying he was in “Pennsylvania.” For whatever reason, the press and tracker corps that follows these campaign events leads with the flubs. Post-convention, Clinton can’t get a national audience to pay attention to all of this. With no notes, he says it anyway.

“There is no limit to what we can achieve, and I want Barack Obama to lead the way!” said Clinton. “We need you.”

He turned and walked off the stage, into the rope line. The guy with the copy of Clinton’s bio made sure to find a place there.