Bill Clinton: Witness for the Defense

Four years after criticizing his predecessor for compromising too much, President Obama needed him to make the case for centrism.


By summoning Bill Clinton as a character witness on Wednesday night, Barack Obama turned to a predecessor he once derided as more transactional than transformational.

When Obama joined his predecessor on the stage at the end of his speech, it was a moment of inverted political fortunes: After criticizing Clinton's approach to the presidency during his triumphant first march to the White House, Obama hoped to buttress his fiercely contested bid for reelection by aligning with his predecessor's record of economic growth and centrist reform.

While forceful, Clinton's much-anticipated speech wasn't especially eloquent; in its point-by-point defense of Obama's record on everything from health care and welfare to job growth and fuel-economy standards, it was reminiscent of one of Clinton's elongated State of the Union addresses. (It borrowed from those predecessors as well by barreling past the 11 p.m. cutoff for network coverage.) Along the way, Clinton subtly sought to recast Obama in his own image by portraying him as more conciliatory and inclusive than a Republican Party that he portrayed as ideological and uncompromising.

"One of the main reasons we ought to reelect President Obama," Clinton insisted, "is he is still committed to constructive cooperation."

Clinton's cleverest rhetorical device was to pull back the lens from the past four years to argue that over the past five decades the economy had produced far more jobs under Democratic than Republican presidents. With that reframing, he sought to present the race less as a choice between two individuals than two competing traditions -- and to link Obama to robust job growth under his own presidency in the 1990s and the Kennedy and Johnson years during the 1960s.

Clinton's speech brought some order to a grab bag of an evening featuring a cavalcade of constituencies, from labor leaders to abortion-rights supporters, veterans, assorted governors, female senators, and business leaders. Until Clinton's culminating remarks, the convention's second of three nights seemed like the lagging middle film in a movie trilogy: It drifted without approaching the concentrated emotional power of the Monday speeches from Julian Castro, Michelle Obama, and even labor activist Lilly Ledbetter.

Yet the contrast between Clinton and the evening's other headliner, Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts Senate candidate and liberal heroine, was telling. Warren thundered through a populist jeremiad that borrowed more from William Jennings Bryan than William Jefferson Clinton.

In her unflinching and unrelenting denunciations of the wealthy and corporations benefiting from an economic system she denounced as "rigged" against average Americans, Warren underscored how far the Democrats have traveled from Clinton's more conciliatory message of opportunity, responsibility, and community in the 12 years since he left office. Indeed, immediately after she left the stage, Clinton repeatedly called for cooperation between government and the businesses that Warren had portrayed as maneuvering tirelessly for advantage at the expense of ordinary Americans.

Obama has conducted his presidency somewhere on the continuum between Clinton and Warren. He hasn't been as unqualified in his confrontational populism as the latter, but neither has he shown as much willingness to challenge his party or rethink traditional liberal approaches as Clinton did. That was one of several reasons that Obama's decision to provide Clinton such a prominent role in his defense was so striking.

Throughout his rise from local Chicago politics to the White House, Obama, in fact, displayed an uneasy relationship with the centrist New Democrat movement that Clinton led. As Ryan Lizza noted in his New Yorker profile of the relationship between the two men this week, Obama, as a young lawyer in 1996, criticized one of Clinton's signature New Democrat achievements, the welfare-reform legislation that the president signed over resistance from much of his party's Left.

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Ronald Brownstein is Atlantic Media's editorial director for strategic partnerships. More

Ronald Brownstein, a two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of presidential campaigns, is Atlantic Media's editorial director for strategic partnerships, in charge of long-term editorial strategy. He also writes a weekly column and regularly contributes other pieces for the National Journal, contributes to Quartz, and The Atlantic, and coordinates political coverage and activities across publications produced by Atlantic Media.

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