Moments before Bill Clinton took the stage at the Democratic Party’s convention, word bubbled through the Time Warner Cable Arena that President Obama would join him on the podium after his speech.
This made official what was already implicit: The sitting president had come to bask in the former president’s glow.
Obama was backstage while the audience clapped along to the old Clinton theme song, Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop (Thinking About Tomorrow).” The 20,000 jamming the hall watched footage of Clinton’s past triumphs — “longest economic expansion in history” — and then erupted in cheers as Clinton strolled slowly onto the stage, giving a thumbs-up to the cameras.
His speech — a meandering Clintonian mix of folksiness and savage partisanship — was illuminated by the sparkle of thousands of camera flashes and punctuated with regular shouts of “We love you, Bill!” Inevitably, the subject matter frequently returned to the speaker’s favorite topic: Bill Clinton.
“Thankfully, by 1996, the economy was roaring, everybody felt it, and we were halfway through the longest peacetime expansion in the history of the United States,” he reminded the delegates.
“People ask me all the time how we delivered four surplus budgets,” he confided, adding: “Republican economic policies quadrupled the debt before I took office, in the 12 years before I took office, and doubled the debt in the eight years after I left.”
The 42nd president further reminded the delegates that “I was just a country boy from Arkansas,” and that “I love our country so much.” There was also that “welfare reform bill I signed that moved millions of people from welfare to work.”
But what about Obama? “President Obama appointed several members of his Cabinet even though they supported Hillary in the primary. Heck, he even appointed Hillary.”
Obama and his advisers knew that this was exactly what was going to happen. But they calculated that it was worth risking the perception that Obama was trying to ride a former president’s coattails to re-election. In the end, that gamble will probably prove to be a good one, because Clinton, a far more popular figure than Obama, bestowed his blessing on the president unambiguously, in some ways making the case for Obama’s re-election more cogently than Obama has made it.
“No president — not me, not any of my predecessors, no one — could have fully repaired all the damage that he found in just four years,” Clinton told the crowd. “But he has laid the foundation for a new, modern, successful economy of shared prosperity, and if you will renew the president’s contract, you will feel it. You will feel it.”
Clinton, with his far better track record, was apologizing for Obama, and vouching for him. “Folks, whether the American people believe what I just said or not may be the whole election,” he said, departing from the words on his teleprompter. “I just want you to know that I believe it. With all my heart, I believe it.”
That’s worth a lot to Obama, who was viewed favorably by just 47 percent in the most recent Washington Post-ABC News poll. Clinton, by contrast, is at 69 percent in a new USA Today/Gallup poll. The Republican ticket, recognizing that disparity, tried to drive a wedge between the two men. “My guess is we’ll get a great rendition of how good things were in the 1990s,” Paul Ryan said Wednesday morning.
The GOP vice presidential nominee was right about that. But in elevating Clinton in their rhetoric and trying to paint him as a moderate who is out of step with Obama, the Republicans invited the fierce attacks Clinton delivered: criticizing Mitt Romney for being loose with the facts, chastising congressional Republicans for their blind partisanship and mocking Ryan for his hypocrisy on Medicare. “It takes some brass to attack a guy for doing what you did,” he said.
As is typical of Clinton, the speech wandered widely even when he wasn’t ad-libbing (“Y’all watch their convention?”), and it became something of a policy laundry list that went overtime by nearly half an hour. But he gave Obama what he wanted: a strong personal endorsement.
As promised, Obama strode onto the stage after the speech, and the two leaders embraced in a bear hug. Obama, his hand on Clinton’s shoulder, then tried to lead his Democratic predecessor off the stage — but Clinton kept returning to the crowd for more hugs and handshakes. Finally, Obama decided to wait backstage for a few moments until Clinton finished enjoying his night.
Dana Milbank is a columnist for The Washington Post. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.