WASHINGTON — Three weeks ago, former president Bill Clinton arrived at a Manhattan apartment and delivered a private briefing to 40 of the wealthiest donors to a super PAC that supports President Obama, worrying out loud that Democrats were being vastly outraised by Republicans.
Now, on Wednesday night, Clinton is slated to address one of the largest audiences since he left the presidency, nominating Obama for a second term in a speech that is expected to provide a detailed argument for the president’s reelection, providing the latest sign of how deeply the Democratic Party is relying on the former Arkansas governor.
These two stops on the Clinton itinerary are evidence of one of the most compelling back stories of the Obama years: Two of the party’s most popular national figures are not President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden but instead are Bill and Hillary Clinton, both with identical 66 percent approval ratings. That is well above those of the White House incumbents seeking reelection.
All of this has led to plenty of chatter about who really has the party’s heart: the president or the former president? Like so many things Clintonian, it’s complicated.
Obama in the 2008 primaries beat Hillary Clinton, whom he called “likable enough” in a famous case of faint political praise. But then he courted her and made her secretary of state. Bill Clinton, who campaigned vigorously against Obama and for his wife four years ago, has spent much of the Obama presidency dispensing advice to the White House, sometimes critically and publicly. Earlier this year, Bill Clinton seemed to undercut one of Obama’s central arguments in the campaign by saying the Republican nominee Mitt Romney had a “sterling business career” at Bain Capital.
Another incumbent might have cut his ties or at least kept his distance, but Obama has made it clear he needs Bill Clinton – with the former president featured in television commercials, fund-raising appeals, and the convention speech.
“Bill Clinton is singularly one of the greatest thinkers and surrogates on the economy for President Obama,” said Bill Burton, who served as Obama’s deputy White House press secretary and now runs the pro-Obama Priorities USA super PAC that Clinton addressed last month. “He is more respected than just about any leader in his ability to speak out for President Obama.”
So here is the former president, white-haired, gone vegan, and rehabilitated from the nadir of impeachment and an affair with an intern, being given one of the most visible roles at the Charlotte convention. He is certain to receive a rock-star welcome, the onetime “comeback kid” taking aim at the Republicanticket’s claim that they are America’s “comeback team.”
And while diplomatic protocol dictates that she can’t attend the convention, Hillary Rodham Clinton is arguably the most successful and prized member of the Obama Cabinet, vouching that the president has done precisely what she once insisted he could not, answering the 3 a.m. crisis call with aplomb and steering the country’s foreign policy through four turbulent years.
Doug Sosnick, who served as Bill Clinton’s White House political director, said that while Obama and Bill Clinton had a strained relationship as a result of the 2008 campaign, they have grown closer. He compared it to the way Clinton and the man he vanquished in 1992, former president George H. W. Bush, went from having an acrimonious relationship to a warm friendship. In both cases, Sosnick said, Clinton’s relationships with Bush and Obama have warmed as a result of their membership in one of the world’s most elite groups – men who have been president.
“I think that while the time frame is shorter in terms of Obama being elected, the shared views of Obama and Clinton have brought them closer together since ’08, and obviously bringing Hillary into the Cabinet enhances that,” Sosnick said. “I don’t want to oversell their closeness because I don’t think anybody would say they are close, but there is a lot of respect there and the relationship has matured.”
In July, Obama asked Bill Clinton to give the nominating speech. But an equally important role, although less public, is the former president’s ability to raise money for the party, the campaign, and super PACs, with Democrats badly lagging in the last category.
Priorities USA had raised $26 million as of July 31. By contrast, the Republican rival, Restore Our Future, which is run by a trio of former Romney aides, had raised $90 million, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. Other pro-GOP groups are also well ahead of Democratic rivals. While Obama has said he will not appear at fund-raisers for super PACs — he only reluctantly allowed top aides to do so earlier this year — Romney has appeared before at least two events for Restore Our Future.
Around the same time the latest contribution reports were released, Bill Clinton volunteered to come to the rescue. On Aug. 15, he went to the Manhattan apartment of Amy Goldman, who is famous for her work in preserving heirloom seeds and has given at least $1 million to Priorities USA. Goldman had invited 40 or so of the party’s wealthiest donors to hear Clinton talk about Obama’s reelection bid.
As guests dined on a Clinton-inspired vegan menu of steamed edamame, potato dumplings, and okra, the former president “really roused the troops” with a 45-minute talk about the economy, health care, and other issues, and then stayed for an hour of conversation with the guests, Goldman said in a telephone interview.
At the same time, “President Clinton spoke at length about the role of outside money in the race and the danger to President Obama of being dramatically outspent,” Burton said, basing his assessment from reports from participants.
Separately, Clinton agreed to film a commercial that tips its hat to his success as president while making a pitch for Obama. In the ad, Clinton reminds voters how good things were when he was in the White House in the context of talking about Obama’s economic program: “It only works if there is a strong middle class. That’s what happened when I was president. We need to keep going with his plan.” The subtext is clear: Reelect Obama and things will be more like they were under Clinton.
Senator John Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat, knows what an asset Clinton can be in a presidential campaign. Recalling how Clinton had surgery shortly before helping turn out 100,000 people at a Philadelphia rally for him in 2004, Kerry said, “He’s a strategist, he’s an indefatigable campaigner, and he’s a living, breathing reminder of the Democratic track record of creating jobs and turning budget deficits into surpluses.”
Clinton’s task at the convention, Democrats said, is to follow that same script, reminding voters of the good times under his administration and explaining how the economy turned sour when George W. Bush became president and pushed through tax cuts that disproportionately benefited the wealthiest Americans.
Clinton stepped on that message earlier this year when he publicly disagreed with the White House about whether all of the Bush tax cuts should be extended. Obama has said the tax cuts should not be extended for couples earning more than $250,000 but Clinton said in June such plans would have to be put off until next year.
Even Republicans have heightened Clinton’s profile. Romney’s campaign recently began airing an ad that, in its first seconds, seems like a Clinton commercial. It shows the then-president in 1996 smiling as he signs his landmark welfare legislation, which required recipients to work for benefits, and it quotes The Washington Post as saying the bill was an “unprecedented success.”
The commercial then says — incorrectly, according to independent fact checkers — that Obama “quietly announced a plan to gut welfare reform by dropping work requirements.”
Obama’s campaign has called the attack false, saying Republican governors sought waivers to give them flexibility in implementing the law.
In any case, it was telling that the Romney campaign believed it was an effective strategy to praise Clinton and contrast him with Obama. Clinton, however, quickly came to Obama’s defense, saying the ad is “not true,” a view the former president may emphasize anew in his Wednesday speech.