6 Sep 2012

Bill Clinton: the man from Hope offers Democrats hope

In a bravura performance from the ultimate comeback kid, Bill Clinton embraces Barack Obama on stage at the Democratic convention after urging voters to give the president four more years in the job.

It was a speech long on detail, long on substance and, well, just plain long. Bill Clinton showed why he is still one of the greatest political orators on the planet with a rousing speech to the Democratic convention, much of it ad-libbed, which kept the audience cheering for almost an hour. Even the most jaded pundits were falling over themselves in praise.

It is 12 years since the 42nd president left office, but he wasted no opportunity to lambast the policies of Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, alongside a cogent defence of the last four years. This was a piece of high performance art, and an appeal to fundamental values: “We believe that ‘We’re all in this together’ is a far better philosophy than ‘You’re on your own.'”

Unlike a raft of senior Democrats, who have shied away from questions on whether the country is better off than it was four years ago, Clinton embraced it with zeal. “Of course” America was better off, he declared. “I just want you to know I believe it. With all my heart I believe it.” And to prove it, he cited a dizzying mix of statistics, detailing millions of jobs gained or saved since Obama came to office.

If you renew the president’s contract, you will feel it. You will feel it. Bill Clinton

In classic Clinton style, however, the impressive range of facts and figures were there to serve a purpose: not just to answer that “are you better off?” charge, but to create that sense of confidence and optimism about the future that has been so badly lacking amid the years of economic gloom. He was, if you like, a reminder of past prosperity, bearing the promise that its time would come again.

So as the audience chanted “Four more years!” Clinton argued that the Obama White House had fought to create the conditions for secure economic growth: what they needed was time to see those policies through. “He has laid the foundations for a new, modern, successful economy of shared prosperity. And if you will renew the president’s contract, you will feel it. You will feel it.”

Ah yes. Feelings. That gut instinct about the economic future which either makes voters uneasy, or willing, to vote your way at the polls. America, claimed Clinton, simply could not risk electing a Republican administration who would “double down on trickle-down” and leave the rest to fend for themselves.

Democratic values

On the intellectual level, it was an effective defence of Democratic values against the rugged individualism of the right. The Republicans based their whole convention theme around that offhand remark which Obama now says he regrets: “You didn’t build that.” Clinton met that one head-on, talking about success not simply in terms of wealth, but middle class values like decency, hard work and community.

It was a theme that Elizabeth Warren, populist champion of consumer rights and darling of the liberals, now struggling in her Senate race in Massachussetts, made when she introduced Clinton on the stage. “The Republican vision is clear: ‘I’ve got mine, the rest of you are on your own'”, she told the hall: and as for the system that helped businesses to succeed – “We built it together.”

Clinton and Obama (getty)

It remains to be seen how many millions of voters watched the Clinton speech in full, how many were still watching past 11 o’clock at night, how many had turned over to the opening game of the NFL season. But even the Republicans admitted they were impressed by the power of his rhetoric.

Top GOP adviser Alex Castellanos was pretty unequivocal: “This convention is done,” he said. “This will be the moment that probably re-elected Barack Obama.” Fellow Republican strategist Steve Schmidt bemoaned the lack of a conservative equivalent. “I wish to God as a Republican we had someone on our side who had the ability to do that.”

Reflected glory

Such was the power of the Clinton effect that Barack Obama turned up in Charlotte early to share in the reflected glory. Four years ago, there was definitely no love lost between the two men. Now, though, the parameters have all changed. Those key constitutencies which Clinton can reach out to – the white working class, independents, blue collar men – need to see Obama as someone who understands their problems and can champion their needs.

So Obama did not jump up on stage to embrace his wife, who gave a similarly barnstorming performance when she addressed the convention on opening night. No, his hug was for Bill Clinton, the Teflon president who has survived scandal and impeachment and political gridlock, and still brings crowds to their feet with cheers in their throats and tears in their eyes.

It is Obama’s turn to win over those hearts and minds on Thursday night: to recapture that hope which has been overshadowed by the disillusion cast by four years of political reality. And unlike 2008, he will not be addressing a vast crowd in an outdoor arena, as originally planned. A forecast of bad weather has moved the whole event indoors, to a smaller hall, where party officials hope the only storm will be the sound of applause

In Clinton, Obama could not have hoped for a better advocate, a better champion, a better ally. And it will not stop with that one speech. He will be hitting the road to campaign for Obama’s re-election in key states like Florida and Ohio. In the words of that old ’92 campaign song: just don’t stop thinking about tomorrow.

Felicity Spector writes about US politics for Channel 4 News