CHARLOTTE — Campaigning in 2008, Barack Obama set the very highest goals for his presidency. He would not only bring about economic recovery, he would lay the foundation for a new economy, bring Americans together, reduce the rancor of political debate, and even slow the rise of the oceans. Now, as he runs for re-election, Obama is caught in a trap of his own making: Many Americans who voted for him, particularly independents, are judging him not so much by what he has done in office as by what he promised to do. If voters hold Obama to that standard on Election Day, he will lose.
What Obama desperately needs to do in the campaign’s last two months is to lower expectations, to bring the high hopes of 2008 in line with the reality of 2012. That might be an impossible job, but Team Obama realized there was just one Democrat capable of even giving it a shot: Bill Clinton. So the former president was given the spotlight at the Democratic convention in Charlotte Wednesday night, his assignment to convince voters that the standards Obama set for himself in ’08 were unrealistic.
Clinton argued that the economic crisis Obama inherited was so serious that “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.” Obama will need eight years to finish the job, and even if people don’t see things getting better now, they will if they’ll just vote for Obama. “He has laid the foundation for a new, modern, successful economy of shared prosperity” Clinton said, “and if you will renew the president’s contract, you will feel it.”
“I believe that with all my heart,” Clinton added. He said it with such apparent conviction that it’s likely some longtime Clinton watchers immediately assumed it was not true. And it’s probably not. But with Clinton, who knows? Everyone knows he and Obama have had a difficult relationship. Everyone knows what happened in the 2008 Democratic primaries. But Clinton remains a Democrat, and he said what he needed to say.
Sincerity aside, there’s no doubt Clinton can make the case for Barack Obama’s re-election far better than Obama himself. At age 66 and nearly a dozen years removed from the White House, Clinton remains the best simplifier, the best explainer, in American politics. Obama can’t touch him.
So on Wednesday night, Clinton didn’t just make excuses for Obama, although he did a lot of that. He also thoroughly rebutted the main lines of attack Obama faces from Republicans Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, and he did it in a way that anyone could grasp. Clinton’s argument won’t change any Republican minds, but it could well make some independents a little less likely to side with the GOP. If Obama’s advisers are smart, they’ll make ads from Clinton’s speech, and not from whatever Obama says Thursday night.
Of course Clinton did a lot of it on the fly. Reporters who tried to follow along with the prepared text of the speech, sent out by the DNC shortly before Clinton took the stage, often had no idea where he was going. The Washington Post’s Sarah Kliff counted and found that Clinton’s prepared remarks were 3,136 words, and the speech he actually delivered was 5,895.
Clinton may be the world’s best salesman, or one of the best, but there are limits to what a salesman can accomplish without a good product to sell. For the 20-plus million Americans out of work, and the untold millions more who fear losing their jobs, and the millions who are so stressed out that they just don’t think they can take four more years like the last four — will many of those people be convinced to ignore their own suffering and vote for Obama again simply because Bill Clinton said so? That seems highly unlikely. As expected, Clinton made a great argument, and showed once again why he’s head-and-shoulders above Obama as a campaigner. But changing the course of this election is another matter altogether.