Clinton hugs Obama at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina. (AP)
Charlotte (North Carolina), Sept. 6: America has a new teacher: Bill Clinton. Twelve years after he ceased to be President, he remains this country’s most popular politician with an approval rating of 69 per cent. Last night he used that capital to give his people a tutorial on the coming election that only Bill Clinton could have dared to attempt on prime time television.
The man Clinton formally re-nominated last night on the floor of his party’s national convention to retain the job as his successor, Barack Obama, is way down in popularity, hovering at around 47 per cent, a yawning gap of 22 points below Clinton.
At their national convention in Tampa last week, Republicans resurrected a question that historians say enabled Ronald Reagan to reduce Jimmy Carter to a one-term President, a feat that Mitt Romney hopes to repeat with Obama in nine weeks.
Reagan’s catchy question which caught the imagination of the electorate was: “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?” Every Democrat, be it in campaign speeches or in interviews, has evaded a direct answer since that tricky question resurfaced in Tampa last week.
These are difficult times for Americans, unemployment is still high at 8.3 per cent, house prices have not appreciated significantly since the recent real estate crash and the US is still in deep debt which is only getting deeper. No Democrat wants to be accused of lying that these are good times or of exaggerating the record of Obama’s presidency.
So they have beaten around the bush to the delight of Republicans who may have thought that the Reganesque message would take them back to the White House.
Then came along Bill Clinton last night ambling on to the Democratic convention’s sprawling arena in deliberate steps, savouring every second of his fans’ standing applause to declare that, yes indeed, Americans are better off today than four years ago because of Obama. That was an assertion that took guts, it was risky, but Clinton made it to the White House from an obscure Arkansas town called Hope by taking risks all his life.
Wagging a forefinger in his familiar gesturing style, Clinton reminded the audience that in 2008, “we were losing 750,000 jobs a month. Are we doing better than that today?” Democrats, who had been apologetic about the incumbent President both at the convention so far and earlier, were suddenly energised. “Yes,” they roared in answer to Clinton’s question.
The former President then repeated it himself, for emphasis. “Yes.” And he went on to explain. “I get it. I know it. I have been there. A lot of Americans are still angry and frustrated about this economy. If you look at the numbers, you know employment is growing, banks are beginning to lend again, and in a lot of places, housing prices have even begun to pick up.
“But too many people do not feel it yet. I had this same thing happen in 1994 and early ’95,” when he was beginning his re-election effort. “We could see that the policies were working, that the economy was growing, but most people didn’t feel it yet. Thankfully, by 1996, the economy was roaring, everybody felt it, and we were halfway through the longest peacetime expansion in the history of the United States.”
He reminded Democrats that Obama inherited an economy which was far weaker than the one Clinton inherited as President. “No President, no President — not me, not any of my predecessors — no one could have fully repaired all the damage that he found in just four years.”
Clinton’s performance last night was described in The Washington Post today as the work of a “smiling assassin”. In a 48-minute address that was 14 minutes longer than any speech he has previously made at a Democratic convention, Clinton demolished every argument that the Republicans made in Tampa last week against re-electing Obama in November.
His mastery of recent political detail was unassailable. “Since 1961, for 52 years now, the Republicans have held the White House 28 years, the Democrats 24. In those 52 years, our private economy has produced 66 million private sector jobs. So what is the job score? Republicans: 24 million. Democrats: 42 million.”
With that one hit Clinton exposed those in the opposition who allege that Democrats are against the private sector. At the same time, he reminded party faithful that their party’s record was creditable on job creation.
Clinton donned the robes of America’s few surviving elder statesmen when he took care to praise his Republican predecessors. Accusing the “far Right” of the Republican Party of feeding hate against Obama, Clinton drew a contrast.
“Maybe just because I grew up in a different time, but though I often disagree with Republicans, I actually never learned to hate them.… That would be impossible for me, because President (Dwight D.) Eisenhower sent federal troops to my home state to integrate Little Rock Central High School. President Eisenhower built the interstate highway system. When I was a governor, I worked with President Reagan in his White House on the first round of welfare reform and with President George H.W. Bush on national education goals.” He went so far as to say he was “grateful” to George W. Bush, his immediate successor, for saving millions of lives abroad in poor countries through AIDS relief work.
Clinton’s sharpest cuts were reserved not for Obama’s presidential opponent, but for Romney’s vice-presidential running mate, Paul Ryan, whom he accused as a Congressman of preventing the creation of a million jobs by blocking Obama’s employment plans on Capitol Hill..
Age has not mellowed Clinton. He could not help praising beauty. It was vintage Clinton who said Obama should be President because “I want a man who had the good sense to marry Michelle Obama”.
That was also an acknowledgement of the electrifying effect the First Lady had with her speech to the convention a day earlier.
Like a stern teacher stressing what students must remember after the lesson is over, he emphasized finer points in the Democratic argument for Obama. He pointed repeatedly with an index finger to key imaginary passages in the party’s script for the coming election. He kept commanding the American people as if they were a bunch of students: “Listen to this, Listen to this.”
Tomorrow Democrats gathered here from all across the US will return to their home states to plunge into what remains of the 2012 election campaign. But they will do so better prepared and be less defensive about their current President because of what Clinton told them in those 48 minutes last night.
If Obama wins in November, a big chunk of the credit should go to his wife Michelle and Clinton who energized their party base this week with their stirring oratory.