With Republicans scheming to divide them and reporters reviving silly 2008 story lines to predict disaster, former President Clinton and President Obama got the last laugh: Obama joined his predecessor onstage, for his first appearance in Charlotte. Clinton actually bowed to Obama when the president came out. It wasn’t clear whether it was a bow of deference, or of a proud performer to an appreciative audience. You could imagine both men savoring the way they’d confounded the troublemakers.
Republicans will rue the day they dragged Bill Clinton into this fight with their welfare reform lies and their silly claims that Obama is a socialist defiling Clinton’s centrist legacy. Clinton can say things Obama can’t. He vividly laid out the depth of the economic challenge his successor faced, as well as the right-wing hatred. “Though I often disagree with Republicans,” said the man who was impeached by the other party, “I never learned to hate them the way the far right that now controls their party seems to hate our president.” The Republicans’ “No. 1 priority,” he said, “was not to put America back to work, it was to put the president out of work.” By contrast, Obama, he said, was “committed to constructive cooperation – heck, he even appointed Hillary!”
Clinton also summed up the 2012 campaign more clearly than any other surrogate: “We believe that ‘we’re all in this together’ is a far better philosophy than ‘you’re on your own.’”
He was scathing on the two big lies of the Romney-Ryan campaign: that Obama wants to slash Medicare (he and Paul Ryan cut the same $716 billion in provider payments and insurance subsidies) and has gutted the welfare-system’s work requirement. On Medicare, he said, “I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. It takes some brass to accuse a guy of doing what you did.” Likewise, “the claim that President Obama weakened welfare reform’s work requirement is just not true. But they keep running ads on it. As their campaign pollster said ‘we’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact checkers.’ Now that is true. I couldn’t have said it better myself – I just hope you remember that every time you see the ad.”
Taking on the question of whether the country is better off than it was four years ago – the question Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley flubbed – Clinton answered a resounding yes. “Are we where we want to be today? No. Is the president satisfied? Of course not. But are we better off now than when he took office?” The crowd roared “yes.”
But the former president known for his connection with so-called white working-class voters nodded to those unhappy with Obama by noting that “a lot of Americans are still angry and frustrated with this economy. Too many people do not feel [things getting better] yet. I had the same thing happen in 1994 and 1995. We could see that the policies were working and the economy was growing, but people didn’t feel it yet … President Obama started with a much weaker economy than I did. Listen to me now: No president, not me, not any of my predecessors, could have fully repaired all the damage that he found in just four years.”
In his long but mostly engaging speech, his voice a little hoarse, the wonk in chief dazzled the delegates with numbers: Did you know that in the last 52 years, the U.S. created 66 million private sector jobs, and 42 million were created in the 24 years Democrats controlled the White House? Me either. Or that Republican policies quadrupled the debt in the 12 years before Clinton took office and doubled in the eight years after? That two-thirds of Medicaid – supposedly the poor people’s healthcare program – goes to nursing home care for seniors and rehabilitation for the disabled? (Translation: You use Medicaid too, white people!) Or that we’ve dropped to 16th in the world in the number of young people with college degrees?
He explained the president’s Medicare changes more clearly than anyone in the White House has, and said that if Paul Ryan has his way, Medicare “will go broke by 2016. If that happens, you won’t have to wait until their voucher program begins in 2023 to see the end of Medicare as we know it.”
But beyond all the numbers, Clinton outlined the stark choice between the Democratic and Republican visions. ”If you want a ‘you’re on your own, winner take all’ society you should support the Republican ticket. If you want a country of shared opportunities and shared responsibilities – a ‘we’re all in it together’ society, you should vote for Barack Obama and Joe Biden.” At the end of the speech, Obama came out onstage for Clinton’s deep bow – and then the two men hugged. Media fantasies of discord between the two men were cruelly crushed. ABC’s Rick Klein tweeted: “First image of Barack Obama at his reelection convention will be next to Bill Clinton. Did not see this coming.”