Former President Bill Clinton has been asked to deliver perhaps the most important message of the Democratic National Convention: Voters should give President Barack Obama another four years to fix the economy.
Obama’s decision to have Clinton headline the convention’s Wednesday night lineup indicates that the two men have set aside their differences from the 2008 campaign in order to keep their party’s hold on the White House. And even if they haven’t completely mended their relationship, political analysts say it would have been unwise for the president not to spotlight Clinton, who left office in 2001 and remains among the country's most popular political figures.
“They were really (annoyed) at each other, but that was four years ago. And this is politics, not dating,” said Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. “People forgive and forget. People move on. (Clinton) wants Barack Obama to get elected.”
Clinton will formally nominate Obama and “lay out the critical choice in this election between continuing to move forward toward a strong economy or going back to the same policies that lead to the economic crisis,” convention organizers said in a statement.
Obama and Clinton have come a long way since 2008, when Clinton’s wife, Hillary, fought an acrimonious primary campaign against Obama. At one point, Bill Clinton described Obama’s candidacy as a "fairy tale," which several black leaders called racially insensitive. Clinton backed off the comment, but his relationship with Obama reportedly remained frosty.
Clinton helped restore party unity by delivering an enthusiastic endorsement of Obama at the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver. Obama’s appointment of Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State mended things further.
This year, as Obama’s race against Mitt Romney has grown tighter and nastier, Clinton has offered his services at several key moments. He has helped Obama raise money and starred in campaign ads.
The ads offer insight into what Clinton may say at the convention.
“This election, to me, is about which candidate is more likely to return us to full employment,” Clinton says in one ad. “This is a clear choice. The Republican plan is to cut more taxes on upper-income people, and go back to deregulation. That’s what got us in trouble in the first place. President Obama has a plan to rebuild America from the ground up – investing innovation, education and job training. It only works if there is a strong middle class. That’s what happened when I was president. We need to keep going with this plan.”
The ex-president’s support has appeared to waver at least a bit at times, like when he praised Romney’s business resume as “sterling.” But Obama knows Clinton’s value as a campaign surrogate. He is the last president to preside over a flourishing economy and a budget surplus. And he is what Obama hopes to be: a two-term Democratic president.
“Anything that Bill Clinton can do to show what it’s like to have a second term and a good economy is a big deal for Barack Obama,” said Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion.
Miringoff also pointed out another valuable asset Clinton brings to the campaign. He still appeals to a bloc of voters that Romney and Obama are fighting over: white, blue-collar workers in industrial states.
Clinton will help the Democrats achieve some of their main convention goals: fire up party loyalists and bring back voters who have voted Democratic in the past but are considering straying, Miringoff said.
Clinton also will have an active role in the campaign through election day, Democratic leaders say.
“He’s viewed as an expert on how to move the economy forward and how to build it from the middle class out,” an Obama campaign official told CNN.
The risk, some analysts say, is that Clinton’s message could backfire. Republicans are already accusing Obama of failing to own up to his responsibility for the flagging economy. Clinton’s message could enforce that perspective.
“Clinton’s presence and record may also remind voters or get them thinking about the differences, rather than their similarities,” said Lara Brown, a political science professor at Villanova University. “In other words, Clinton may end up a contrasting, rather than a bolstering, convention figure.”
Other political experts say inviting Clinton to deliver the nominating speech was a no-brainer.
“He’s not going to do anything to hurt Barack Obama,” Peter Brown said. “He’s the right person to talk about why Americans should give Barack Obama another four years.”