When Bill Clinton speaks Wednesday at the University of New Hampshire, President Obama’s surrogate-in-chief is likely to receive the kind of raucous welcome that often is lavished on the incumbent.
More than Vice President Joe Biden, who has a reputation as an attack dog who resonates with blue-collar voters, Clinton is regarded by Democrats as the stand-in star — the folksy, high-intellect charmer who can connect with people who do not warm to Obama. Even Obama conceded, only half-jokingly after the Democratic National Convention, that Clinton has become his “Secretary of Explaining Things.”
For a man who tried to derail Obama during his bitter primary campaign against Hillary Rodham Clinton in 2008, the former president’s transformation to top cheerleader brings enormous benefits to both sides.
For Obama, an appearance by Bill Clinton reminds many people of the economic good times and budget surpluses of his presidency. For Clinton, working the campaign trail could prove invaluable if his wife decides to run for president in four years.
“Listen, he is collecting a stack of chips that makes the World Series of Poker look like patty-cake,” said Tobe Berkovitz, a Boston University communications professor who has advised many political campaigns. “Don’t kid yourself; in another two years this is just money in the bank for Hillary 2016.”
Clinton’s stump work, however, brings immediate benefits to the man he worked to defeat in 2008.
“Where the president is often very inspirational and is very moving, President Clinton can take very complicated concepts and put them into a framework that plain-spoken folks can understand,” said Ray Buckley, chairman of the New Hampshire Democratic Party, who has known Clinton since 1979. “Both are very much needed in politics.”
That skill received stellar reviews last month at the party convention in Charlotte, N.C., where Clinton’s speech — and its dismissive reference to Mitt Romney’s budget “arithmetic” — combined sound-bite simplicity with an easily digestible mission statement. Many observers called the speech the highlight of the convention and the catalyst for Obama’s subsequent bump in the polls.
Even former House speaker Newt Gingrich, who sought Clinton’s impeachment over the Monica Lewinsky affair, has praised the former president. During an appearance on MSNBC, Gingrich called Clinton “the best political figure in terms of skill since Ronald Reagan.”
Obama campaign officials said that Clinton’s speech in New Hampshire will be followed by appearances in other battleground states. The UNH address will be Clinton’s third for Obama since the convention.
The upside of using Clinton is as obvious as his popularity numbers. He is viewed favorably by 64 percent of Americans, according to a Bloomberg News poll in late September.
By contrast, the poll showed Obama’s favorability rating at 52 percent and Romney’s at 43 percent.
“His value as a surrogate is that he’s excellent at framing the issues and setting the agenda,” Berkovitz said of Clinton.
Clinton also brings star appeal as a fund-raiser, appearing at events such as an intimate, $20,000-per-person “roundtable” planned for Boston Wednesday that is expected to garner $500,000 for the campaign.
Clinton’s ability to attract a crowd is a given, but some Republicans are skeptical that his appeal has any effect beyond the party base.
“I don’t think he has the clout that the Democrats think he does,” said Wayne MacDonald, chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party. “I think the surrogates we have for Romney and Ryan” — sitting governors who have visited New Hampshire such as Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, Chris Christie of New Jersey, and Scott Walker of Wisconsin — “are talking about contemporary issues. Bill Clinton is talking about a record that’s 20 years old.”
For Democrats, Clinton’s appeal comes with a reputation for occasionally being a loose cannon. In May, he praised the work done by Bain Capital, a private-equity firm that Romney once headed and that Democrats had been portraying as focused solely on creating wealth instead of jobs.
Since the campaign began in earnest, however, Clinton has been a good soldier who has not caused any head-scratching distractions.
He also has shown a bipartisan streak. Last month, Obama and Romney appeared separately in New York at events hosted by the former president for the Clinton Global Initiative, a global philanthropic organization.
After Clinton gave him a hearty welcome, Romney joked about the impact.
“If there’s one thing we’ve learned this election season, it’s that a few words from Bill Clinton can do any man a lot of good,” Romney told the audience. “After that introduction, I guess all I have to do is wait a day or two for the bounce.”
Although Clinton’s rhetorical skills can be disarming, he is also known as a shrewd politician who carefully measures his words and their impact. Even now, Berkovitz said, Clinton’s work for Obama is fraught with calculation — both for now and the future.
“He’s not doing the favor for Barack Obama,” Berkovitz said. “He’s doing the favor for the Democrats and for Hillary.”