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The Odd Couple: What Clinton Adds For Obama

President Obama and former President Bill Clinton appear at a  campaign event in New York in June.
Carolyn Kaster
President Obama and former President Bill Clinton appear at a campaign event in New York in June.

In public, at least, they're the best of friends. And no one will have a more public role extolling President Obama than his Democratic predecessor, former President Bill Clinton.

Clinton, who has already been featured in an Obama campaign ad, is speaking tonight at the Democratic National Convention in what is traditionally the prime spot reserved for the vice presidential nominee.

"He's clearly the best asset the Democrats have," says GOP consultant David Carney. "Clinton is their best surrogate."

If even a Republican like Carney is willing to extol Clinton's political virtues, it still comes as a bit of a surprise that Obama would deploy Clinton as his top spokesman.

Clinton, naturally, was rooting for his wife when Hillary went head to head with Obama in the Democratic primaries four years ago. He derided Obama's candidacy at the time as "the biggest fairy tale I've ever seen" and reportedly dismissed Obama by saying, "A few years ago, this guy would have been getting us coffee" (or " carrying our bags," depending on the source.)

But that was, well, a few years ago. Obama and Clinton's evolution from feuding to friends has been the subject of intense media interest, including the cover story of Newsweek.

"The fact that President Clinton and President Obama had been in conflict makes his support even stronger now," says Michael Waldman, chief speechwriter in the Clinton White House.

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out why Clinton is being showcased at the convention. Clinton exemplifies perhaps the most crucial political gift that Obama seems to lack — put simply, the human touch. That's an area in which Obama has been accused of lacking deftness, whether it comes to the congressional powers that be or major campaign donors.

And, as Carney suggests, Clinton offers Obama something else he desperately wants — a reminder of better days under Democratic leadership.

Clinton has remained unusually active for an ex-president in certain policy areas, such as AIDS and climate change. But it's mainly nostalgia for his presidency of the 1990s that Democrats hope to trade on. Clinton presided over the longest unbroken economic expansion in U.S. history and left the federal budget in surplus.

"His mere persona up there harkens in many Democratic minds back to better times," says Henry Cisneros, who served as Clinton's housing secretary. "He can articulate the economic arguments in a way that few people can."

Clinton will certainly speak to the economy — and doubtless will deride Republicans for invoking his name in their attacks against Obama's welfare policies.

His primary role might be acting as character witness for Obama before the demographic group most reluctant to embrace Obama: the white working class.

"It's not that Obama's going to win the white working class, but he needs not to lose 61 percent of their vote, like House Democrats [in 2010]," says Henry Olsen, vice president of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.

Clinton may offer a link back to days when Democrats were more competitive among white working-class voters — as well as a reminder that Democrats once could speak with a Southern accent and win.

But even in the Democratic primaries in 2008, many white working-class voters preferred Hillary Clinton over Obama. And tonight, millions of white working-class Americans will be tuned in not to convention proceedings but to the NFL season opener.

"Bill Clinton spent a lot of his political career thinking about the economic issues that affect working-class voters and crafted a message for the party that the party still uses," says Waldman, who is now president of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University.

Still, he adds, "I don't think it's like a gift certificate that one politician can hand over to another."

There also may be some irony in the fact that one of the leading speakers at a convention designed largely to appeal to female voters was himself nearly driven from office by a sex scandal involving a young female intern.

That aside, as Waldman points out, Clinton offers Democrats something they hadn't had for a very long time: a popular ex-president. Clinton was the first Democrat to serve two full terms as president since Franklin Roosevelt, who died in 1945.

Clinton, in fact, is playing a bigger political part than any ex-president in living memory. It has long been the norm that former presidents have appeared at their parties' conventions, but most have stayed out of the spotlight the rest of the time.

Most have been either too old upon leaving office or too unpopular to do their parties much good.

"Clinton has essentially defined a post-presidential role as party leader in a way that virtually no previous president since Teddy Roosevelt has aspired to do," says Hal Bass, a political scientist at Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia, Ark.

"Clinton enjoys the rehabilitation that he has found in the political arena," Bass says.

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Alan Greenblatt has been covering politics and government in Washington and around the country for 20 years. He came to NPR as a digital reporter in 2010, writing about a wide range of topics, including elections, housing economics, natural disasters and same-sex marriage.
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