The Closer: Clinton Goes Where Obama Can't and Says What Obama Can't

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Whether facing a hurricane or struggling numbers with blue-collar white voters, Obama counts on the former president as his best surrogate.

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Reuters

As Hurricane Sandy churned toward the East Coast, the call from President Obama came on Monday morning. "'I got to go back right now, this storm's getting out of hand. I got to handle it,'" Obama told former President Clinton, who recounted the story yesterday to an Ohio crowd. "And I said, 'Mr. President, that is the right call.'"

When Obama skipped his joint appearance with Clinton in Orlando, Florida, and suspended his campaign travel to return to the White House, he turned, once again, to his more popular Democratic predecessor to help him close the deal with the electorate. The last time Obama passed the ball was at his own nominating convention, where Clinton made a more persuasive case for the president's reelection than the president himself. CNN commentator Alex Castellanos, a Republican strategist who advised Romney's 2008 campaign, immediately dubbed Clinton's speech "the moment that probably reelected Barack Obama."

Knowing Clinton's two-term-sized ego and passion for politicking, his former advisers say that he relishes the chance to be a stand-in for the president -- and excels at it, reaching certain demographic groups like white blue-collar voters who are slipping away from the president. Two weeks ago, Clinton joined the workingman's musical icon, Bruce Springsteen, for a campaign event in Ohio. Clinton's campaign swing this week includes the battlegrounds of Colorado, Iowa, and New Hampshire as well as Democratic-leaning states once thought to be in Obama's back pocket -- Minnesota and Wisconsin.

"He's doing what he loves, and he's doing what he loves so effectively," said Mike McCurry, Clinton's former press secretary. "I'm sure he's enjoying every minute of being out there, so it's not like this is a chore for him."

Doug Sosnik, who served as Clinton's political director during his second term, said, "Of everybody out there on the campaign trail, he seems to be the one enjoying it the most." Not only is Clinton going where the president cannot this week, he is also saying what Obama cannot say. In his speech in Youngstown, Ohio, on Monday, he called Romney's claim that Chrysler is moving Jeep production from the state to China "the biggest load of bull in the world," using mild profanity some voters consider beneath the dignity of the president.

Clinton is also able to address race directly in a way that is difficult for the first African-American president. In Ohio, he noted that Republican-proposed Medicaid cuts would affect children across the board -- black, Hispanic, Asian, even Middle Eastern. "Most of them are white folks," Clinton added, drawing some laughter and applause. "This is not a racial deal, folks. This is an equal-opportunity hosing." Wary of being accused of favoring the black community, the president never uses such racially charged language.

Clinton's clutch role in the homestretch of the 2012 campaign is especially noteworthy considering his complicated history with the president. Clinton was criticized for making disparaging, racially tinged remarks about his wife's rival in the 2008 Democratic primary. "I think they have a very good, professional working relationship that goes beyond the president hiring Hillary Clinton to be his secretary of state, though that certainly helped," Sosnik said. "Yes their relationship did start from a negative position, but it has developed."

Dispatching Clinton to campaign on his behalf does carry some risk for Obama. Voters may look at Clinton, a president who presided over strong economic growth, and then look at Obama, who has presided over excruciatingly slow economic recovery, and decide Obama doesn't measure up.

A CBS/New York Times poll last month found Clinton to be more popular than at any time during the past two decades, with 66 percent of registered voters viewing him favorably. That makes him the president's most popular surrogate; First Lady Michelle Obama was viewed favorably by 61 percent. In contrast, Obama's favorability is below 50 percent.

"If Obama is reelected, what will have been the best moment of his campaign? One another president gave him," Castellanos said, referring to Clinton's rousing convention speech. "Bill Clinton didn't just give Obama an endorsement, he gave him a rationale. Even after hundreds of millions of dollars and months of campaigning, Obama couldn't do that for himself."

Escaping no one's notice is that Clinton's time on the stump in 2012 helps lay the groundwork for his wife's potential presidential bid in 2016. He joked in Ohio that "you're only stuck with me" because Clinton's position precludes her from hitting the campaign trail. Clinton associates say the secretary of state hasn't made up her mind about another White House bid.

Regardless, there's no doubt that the Clinton brand is at its peak.

"More than anyone else, Bill Clinton can speak to the issue of being successful at the job of being president," Sosnik said. "He's in a unique and singular position to validate the current president."

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Beth Reinhard is a political correspondent for National Journal.

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