Four years ago in Denver, Bill Clinton was given the assignment of making the world believe that he liked Barack Obama and wanted him to be president. As one longtime confidant put it, “He had to go out there and say, ‘Yeah, Obama beat the blank out of me and my wife, but, still, you should be with him.’ ” But that was then.
On Wednesday night in Charlotte, Clinton will be tasked with a mission that has largely frustrated President Obama: cut through the political clutter and clarify the choice in November. Explain, in his inimitable way, in language that persuadable voters in middle-class America can understand, what Obama has accomplished and why his economic policies would pull the nation out of tough times and the Republican alternatives would not.
When Obama called in late July to say he would be grateful if his Democratic predecessor would give the speech placing his name in nomination, something that no former commander in chief has done before, it was an acknowledgment of how much the sitting president needs the former president. And Clinton, who loves to be needed as much as he needs to be loved, responded with an enthusiasm and diligence that served as yet another signal to people close to both men that an old wound has, for the most part, been healed.
“He is honored that Obama asked him to do it,” said Terry McAuliffe, a former Democratic National Committee chairman. In late August, McAuliffe spent a few days with the Clintons at a beach house in East Hampton, N.Y., and said his close friend seemed obsessed with the convention assignment, continually bringing up books and quotes and ideas he was sifting through. “This speech is very important to him. He has taken the burden and put it on his shoulders.”
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The convention speech, which people around Clinton say he is largely writing himself, is part of a full-scale Bill Clinton offensive that includes political ads – now playing in key swing states – that feature the former president offering snippets of the themes he will expand on Wednesday.
Obama’s team views this in the most positive light, noting Clinton’s talents and popularity, but history shows the occasional dangers. In late May, as the Obama campaign was pounding away at GOP challenger Mitt Romney’s role at Bain Capital, Clinton said of the private-equity firm, “I don’t think we ought to get into a position where we say this is bad work. This is good work.”
A personal, political divide
The Clinton-Obama divide four years ago was political and personal. It began during the intense and at times nasty primary campaign between Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton as intimations of racism were thrown back and forth, a sure sign of competitive overreaching involving two men (the former president was asserting himself in his wife’s campaign at that point) with strong though different bona fides on matters of race – Clinton so empathetic that he was once called the first black president; Obama on his way to becoming the real first black president. That campaign-season animosity was accentuated by disparate individual styles. Presidents No. 42 and 44, separated in age by 15 years on opposite ends of the baby-boom generation, have been called matter and anti-matter, fire and ice, extrovert and introvert.
In November, a delegation of Obama campaign advisers and pollsters led by David Axelrod, Obama’s closest adviser, made a pilgrimage to Clinton’s Harlem headquarters to get his take on the campaign. They brought their polling data and computer models and laid out the information for him on Nov. 11, describing what they were learning about the voters, all the intimate details of what they intended to do, and asked for his advice. He told them to forget about attacking Romney as a flip-flopper. That would backfire, he warned, and give comfort to swing voters who wanted to dump Obama.
“They treated him like the political genius that he is, and he loved that,” one associate said. “This was great. You reach out to him, and he becomes invested in the cause.”
On Wednesday, Clinton will say hello again to his party and a vast audience. He is supposed to get 20 minutes, including applause.