Commentary Magazine


Did Bill Clinton Save Obama?

The anticipation for Bill Clinton’s speech at the Democratic National Convention was so great that it’s not clear what he could have done to exceed those high expectations. His 50-minute oration was classic Clinton, cajoling, seducing, lecturing and attacking. The Democrats in the hall loved every second of it even if television networks and many of their viewers may have switched off long before he finally concluded. Nor is there any doubt most of the media will also applaud it. But those who somehow expected Clinton to magically rescue Barack Obama’s re-election campaign with this one speech may ultimately be disappointed.

What Clinton did do was deliver a full-throated defense of President Obama’s failures and an equally strong dissection of his Republican opponents even if his detailed takedowns of Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan may not survive fair fact checking. Though much of what he said was more spin than reality as well as being a laundry list of liberal talking points, these were effective arguments. But what he did not and perhaps could not do was make a case for what a second Obama administration would do. Nor, despite his attempt to use the example of his own success in turning around an economy to show that Obama might do the same, did he bridge the gap between his own move to the center and his successor’s consistent lurch to the left. More than that, it’s not clear that Clinton’s looking into the camera and telling us he believed in what he said with “all his heart” will have the least effect on the electorate.

The best that Clinton could do was to tell us that Obama deserved that “incomplete” the president said he deserved as his grade on the economy. To justify this judgment, the former president went on long wonkish digressions in his trademark style. That satisfied Clinton’s desire to lecture the country in his usual self-indulgent manner. But it fell short of the soaring rhetoric that could truly rally the country behind Obama.

Clinton’s longwinded endorsement of the president may help Obama keep Democrats in the fold. That is not unimportant. Democrats love Clinton and would, probably have sat through even another 50 minutes of his speechifying and perhaps even would prefer to give him a third term rather than a second for the incumbent. And that’s the rub with having to employ the 42nd president on behalf of the 44th.

For all of the raves Clinton will get from liberals who enjoyed the shots he took at Romney and Ryan, very little of this will attach itself to Obama. Though the speech had its powerful moments, we never stopped thinking about Clinton’s ego and his desire to hog the podium even while the president stood waiting, no doubt impatiently, for him to finally wind it up. Though this was probably a better argument that Obama could make for himself, it is a stretch to believe people will believe the president deserves a pass for his struggles just because Clinton says he deserved one.

Clinton’s detailed explanations also don’t recapture Obama’s 2008 “hope and change” messianism that he desperately needs to offset his shaky record. The night was a triumph for Clinton but Obama is still left locked in a tight, difficult race hoping desperately to be rescued by good economic news in the next several weeks. That, and not any speech by Clinton, is the only magic elixir that can re-elect him.