The American Debate: Bill Clinton surges back to center stage

Posted: August 05, 2012

Hey, remember "Clinton fatigue"? The sour mood that pervaded America back when Bill was burdening his party with his bad-boy behavior, and celebrating his last days in office by issuing a flurry of pardons to felons who were on the lam? Even the Democrats were grousing, off the record, that they couldn't wait for the guy to go away.

But memories fade quickly in this amnesiac nation. Today, he's venerated for his postpresidential charity work, his '90s tenure seems in retrospect to have been a peace-and-prosperity paradise, and there isn't a politician in the land who can match his ability to frame complex issues in everyday human terms. As they used to say in Arkansas, he can still talk a dog off a meat truck.

Nobody knows this better than Barack Obama - which is why the president has tapped Clinton for a major prime-time speaking gig at the Democratic National Convention. Clinton will put Obama's name in nomination, and, in doing so, he'll probably make a better case for Obama's reelection than Obama can make for himself.

This is a classic case of mutual back-scratching. Four years after their primary-season hostilities - two thin-skinned guys with high self-regard, trading thinly veiled insults - circumstances have changed, as often occurs in politics. Today, each guy has great use for the other.

Obama can get some cover from an ex-president with a 66 percent national approval rating, someone who is far more popular with independents and working-class whites. As for Clinton, he can use the occasion (and subsequent appearances on the stump and at fund-raisers) to polish his legacy - and to rack up IOUs from Obama. Because if Obama wins in November with Clinton's help, if he reaps the benefits from Clinton's feel-your-pain patter, he will owe the Big Dawg big-time. (It might be time to retire that Clinton nickname. These days, he's looking as lean as a whippet.)

It's significant, by the way, that whereas Clinton will be front and center at the Democratic convention, George W. Bush will be absent from the Republican convention. The official word is that Bush opted on his own not to show up. But rest assured, if Mitt Romney had sought Bush's presence, he would be there.

The contrast could not be more obvious. Obama seeks a close political association with the most recent Democratic president. Romney has no interest in reminding voters about the most recent Republican president. That's understandable. A Gallup poll in June found that 68 percent of Americans still blame Bush "a great deal" or "a moderate amount" for the ailing economy. Only 52 percent feel the same way about Obama.

This is where Clinton comes in.

His job is to frame the big picture, in ways designed to help not just Obama but also himself. From the convention to November, he'll be targeting the Bush years. He'll basically contend that the economy he bequeathed to the nation was great until Bush and the Republicans screwed it up (via deregulation, budget-busting, and unpaid wars), and that Obama has been digging his way out of Bush's wreckage ever since.

He'll also be tasked with tying Romney to Bush, although he has already begun. Earlier this summer, Clinton quipped at a fund-raiser that Romney, in the economic realm, "basically wants to do what [Bush] did before, on steroids, which will get you the same consequences you got before, on steroids." Sure enough, Obama and Joe Biden now contend on the stump that Romney is "George Bush on steroids."

Obama has returned the favor by dabbling in Clinton nostalgia. What a difference from 2008; back then, Obama invoked Ronald Reagan as the president he wanted to emulate, a president who did Big Things - unlike Clinton, who played a lot of incremental small ball. But at a campaign stop the other day, Obama bathed the Clinton years in a rosy glow:

"All I'm asking is that we go back to the [tax] rates that were paid by wealthy individuals under Bill Clinton. And if you remember, that's when our economy created nearly 23 million new jobs. We created the biggest budget surplus in history. And here's the kicker: It was good for everybody."

Granted, it's a stretch to contend that the Clinton era was nirvana, that the economy was strong thanks solely to his divine wisdom. Clinton was fortunate to hold office during the high-technology dot-com boom, which (until it went bust on Clinton's watch) helped drive robust job and GDP growth. Any president's record is open to debate, and we'll surely argue well into the future about how much credit Clinton deserves for the '90s balanced budgets that helped propel the economy.

But it's a safe bet that his 66 percent approval is not just a thank-you for his good works, or a mere reflection of the public's praise for the secretary of state. Perceptions matter in politics, and, rightly or not, Clinton is perceived by a landslide majority as the most successful president since Reagan. Obama, to his credit, is willing to swallow his pride and tap that political capital for his own use.

As for Clinton, he's playing the long game. Remember those IOUs I mentioned? If Obama wins reelection, Clinton could seek to cash in, by clearing the field for Hillary in 2016. Would an indebted Obama be willing to endorse her as the next nominee? Maybe not, in the event of a Biden candidacy. But would Obama be willing to stay neutral?

Forget Clinton fatigue; this could be the Clintons on steroids. Make no mistake, the whippet is still on the scent.

Dick Polman can be reached at and followed on Twitter @dickpolman1.

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