As Phil Klein writes for today’s Examiner, President Obama overpromised so much in 2008 and has since under-delivered so badly as president that he needed someone to bring voters’ expectations back down to earth. Bill Clinton’s speech this evening was as effective in pulling this off as one could have hoped. Better than that, it was a very good speech -- if a bit long -- and quite persuasive.
Clinton departed from the economic happy-talk that has dominated the Democratic convention so far. Far from the universe of “the private sector is doing fine” and “yes, you’re better off, you just don’t know it” he cast the economy in the worst possible light:
President Obama started with a much weaker economy than I did. No President — not me or 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.
This isn’t exactly a new pitch. It’s the same one Obama has been giving, far less eloquently, for months. Sometimes he has said he forgets how bad things were, sometimes that he underestimated how bad they were. Probably both are true. But when Bill Clinton delivers the message, it’s different. Unlike Obama, who delivers speeches well but often comes off as professorial and condescending, Clinton is a real orator. He communicates with people on a deeper level, with feeling.
It also matters that Clinton is one of the few people who can talk about Obama’s record with disinterested authority. He is a former president himself, and — very importantly — he is not Obama. When Obama complains about the mess he was handed in 2009, he sounds like he’s evading responsibility for his own failures. But when Clinton talks about it, he does so as an experienced observer with no skin in the game — as someone with nothing to lose or gain for himself.
Because Clinton is willing to go into policy details, his listeners come away believing (rightly or wrongly) that they’ve been given the straight dope, the real story about Obama’s virtues that the grim economic reality conceals. The details he offered in rebutting Republican arguments were very effective in this way, too. For example, even if his claim that Obamacare doesn’t cut Medicare benefits is false — and it is false, according to Medicare’s actuary — his explanation will still sell for many people because it contained more detail than most politicians are willing to go into.
Many Americans did not see Clinton’s speech. For those who did, and who were moved by it, the question is what happens when reality sets in again. Obama’s record is, after all, no different from before Clinton’s speech. The national debt continues to climb. Just as many promises remain unfulfilled. The unemployment rate remains high and will still be high when Friday’s jobs report comes out. Also, Obama will speak tonight, and if he does undermine his own cause, he will not be the first presidential candidate or incumbent to do so.
But whatever happens to Obama, Clinton will be able to say one thing truthfully: He did absolutely everything he could to get him re-elected.