Twelve years after leaving office, Bill Clinton has achieved a unique status in American politics – part statesman, part salesman, and part chairman of the board of the Democratic Party. All those roles were on display in his convention speech, which was more than a just a personal triumph: It was the case for Barack Obama that Obama couldn’t make for himself.
Even if Obama had Clinton’s skills of persuasion – and, after four years in office, it’s clear that despite the fine quality of his rhetoric, he does not – the president wouldn’t be wise to devote his own acceptance speech to answering a welter of charges left over from the Republican convention in Tampa. Acceptance speeches are about the next four years, not the previous four.
So it fell to Clinton to clean up the damage left over from Tampa. Luckily for Obama, Clinton is the acknowledged expert in this line of work, a reputation that will only grow after this convention.
How can a president who has failed to significantly expand employment be the best choice to do so in the future? If he’s running against someone whose policies would mirror those of the previous administration, which presided over the collapse.
How can a president who reduced projected Medicare spending by $716 billion be the best choice to preserve Medicare? If the reductions didn’t touch benefits, and the savings went to help seniors pay for prescription drugs.
How can a president who granted waivers to states seeking to adjust their welfare policies be trusted to avoid creating a new culture of dependence? If those waivers required that states increase employment of former recipients.
Clinton’s case for Obama was fuller and more robust than those answers suggest – but it was those answers that are likely to be remembered by undecided voters in swing states.
So too will moderate, centrist voters who are frustrated with the divisive tone of politics remember Clinton’s testimonial to Obama’s willingness to cooperate with former rivals. Clinton and his wife Hillary are living examples of that, and so his mere presence at the convention attested to Democratic unity, and a commitment to working together.
For Clinton, the night marked the reclaiming of a spotlight he never quite relinquished, and the assumption of an ongoing role as Obama’s mentor and protector.
For Obama, the night was one of relief, and of heightened expectation. Clinton both reduced Obama’s burden and added to it. No longer does Obama have to expend too many precious minutes of his acceptance speech rebutting Republican charges; the president is free to talk about the future. But he will have to live up to the standards of the Clinton speech. And that will be difficult, indeed.