If you want an argument for the re-election of President Obama, call Elizabeth Warren. If you want a good time, call Bill Clinton.
The former president took the stage at the Democratic convention Wednesday night to the rousing strains of “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow” –– and he refused to give it back. For 48 minutes, Clinton took the delegates on a country boy joyride across the election landscape, snapping wisecracks at the Republicans down in Tampa, pulling out stories from his days in the Oval office, veering off into wonk-ish explanations of Medicaid and Medicare, and all the while driving home the point that he thinks President Obama has done a pretty good job, in case you were wondering.
It was a remarkable performance. Not the one the Obama campaign might have scripted, but all the more effective because of the sprawling, aw shucks, I’m just being honest here tone that only Clinton can bring to a political rally.
Did Y’all Watch Their Convention?
“In Tampa–– Did y’all watch their convention? I did,” he said. “The Republican argument against the President’s re-election was actually pretty simple, pretty snappy. It went something like this: We left him a total mess. He hasn’t cleaned it up fast enough, so fire him and put us back in.”
As the laughter mounted, Clinton rose to the occasion with the first of many ad-libs. “But they did it well. They looked good. They sounded good. They convinced me that they all love their families and children, and are grateful they were all born in America –– really, I’m not being –– and they convinced me they were honorable people who believe what they said and they’re going to keep every commitment they made. We just have to make sure the American people know what those commitments are.”
“You see they want to go back to the same old policies that got us into trouble in the first place. They want to cut taxes for high income Americans even more than President Bush did; to get rid of those pesky financial regulations designed to prevent another crash and prohibit future bailouts; to increase defense spending two trillion dollars more than the Pentagon has requested without saying what they’ll spend the money on; to make enormous cuts in the rest of the budget, especially programs that help the middle class and poor kids. As another President (Ronald Reagan) once said: ‘There they go again.’”
Making the Case for Obama
“I like the argument for President Obama’s re-election a lot better,” he continued. “He inherited a deeply damaged economy, put a floor under the crash, began the long hard road to recovery, and laid the foundation for a modern, more well-balanced economy that will produce millions of good new jobs, vibrant new businesses, and lots of new wealth for the innovators.
“Are we where we want to be? No. Is the President satisfied? No. Are we better off than we were when he took office, with an economy in free fall, losing 750,000 jobs a month. The answer is YES,” he added.
As Clinton warmed to his subject––that’s probably misleading because he had a lot of subjects on his mind–– I felt like a hitchhiker trapped in a pick-up with a driver who has the gift of gab. He jumped around from one Obama accomplishment to another––higher mileage standards, more aid to community colleges, a resurgent auto industry and an array of energy initiatives (“Oil imports are as low as they’ve been in 20 years, natural gas production is at an all-time high, and alternative energy sources have doubled in the last four years.”)––then doubled back to answer Republican claims that Obama was abandoning “welfare to work” and “robbing” Medicare of $16 billion.
“Here’s what really happened,” he said. “There were no cuts to benefits. What the President did was save money by cutting unwarranted subsidies to providers and insurance companies that weren’t making people any healthier. He used the savings to close the donut hole in the Medicare drug program, and to add eight years to the life of the Medicare Trust Fund.”
“When Congressman Ryan looked into the TV camera and attacked the President for raiding Medicare, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry,” he said. “You see, that 716 billion dollars is exactly the same amount of Medicare savings Congressman Ryan had in his own budget. It takes some brass to attack a guy for doing what you did.”
Clinton and his pick-up cleared away a lot of the brush Republicans have thrown in Obama’s way. Sometimes, he was the professor explaining economic facts; other times, he was just a friendly raconteur. But the crowd loved them both. In that odd way Clinton has of turning a speech into a conversation, he managed to put President Obama’s re-election into the larger story of the Democratic commitment to build a vibrant middle class over the last two decades.
“He made a better argument for the Obama administration than the administration has been able to make for itself,” Scott Pelley said afterward on CBS.
“I’ve Been There, Folks”
But Clinton was at his best when he was talking about himself. “Listen to me, I’ve been there, folks,” he said. “I know many Americans are still angry and frustrated with the economy. Though employment is growing, banks are beginning to lend and even housing prices are picking up a bit, too many people don’t feel it.
“I experienced the same thing in 1994 and early 1995. Our policies were working and the economy was growing but most people didn’t feel it yet. By 1996, the economy was roaring, halfway through the longest peacetime expansion in American history.
“President Obama started with a much weaker economy than I did,” he added, pulling the conversation back to its purpose, nominating the President for a second term.
“Listen to me now, no president, not me, not any of my predecessors could have repaired all the damage in just four years. But conditions are improving and if you’ll renew the President’s contract you will feel it.”
“I believe that. With all my heart, I believe it. Why do I believe it? I’m fixing to tell you why.”
Clinton obviously relished his return to the Democratic spotlight. He told an after-party crowd that he said the things Obama couldn’t say because they would sound “defensive” coming from the President. What Clinton said will fade soon enough into the next 24-hour news cycle, but delegates in the hall will remember the energy in the room. And that was the point.
It is not enough to like President Obama, you need to turn out the votes to get him re-elected. “Are you ready for that? Are you willing to work for it?” he asked. The answer came soon after his speech ended. President Obama walked out on stage and the two presidents stood arm-in-arm waving at the crowd.
When they left and the applause died down, the delegates were still standing in the aisles. Only this time they were chanting, “Fired up, Ready to Go!”