Bill Clinton is campaigning tirelessly because a second Obama term cements his legacy -- and rebukes racism
Pundits still can’t stop pitting former President Clinton against President Obama. On Fox News Sunday morning, Ed Henry said Clinton might be the one to pull Obama over the finish line on Tuesday, as though the current president was a laggard who couldn’t do the job himself. But Clinton’s embrace of Obama, while genuine, also reflects a strong dose of self-interest. A second Obama term secures Clinton’s legacy. It’s also a defeat for the ugly legacy of racism that the former president spent his career fighting.
I’ve been dismissing media attempts to foment or exaggerate a Clinton-Obama feud since the former president endorsed his wife Hillary’s rival back in 2008. But there’s no denying 2008 was bitter. Clinton did make racially insensitive (at the very least) remarks; some on the Obama team struck back by painting the former president as a backwards racist, unfairly in my opinion.
The two men’s rapprochement in 2008 was a matter of mutual Democratic self-interest: Clinton couldn’t afford to be seen as diminishing Obama’s chances, and Obama couldn’t spurn the popular former president’s help. By all accounts, there’s been a slow thaw between them over the last four years. Still, at a Democratic convention that lacked drama, reporters were able to revive a tale of Clinton-Obama tension, based mostly on the former president’s delay in submitting a draft of his speech to the Obama team. I said it was faux-drama even before Clinton tore the roof off the Charlotte convention with a passionate and airtight brief for the president. They’ve appeared to grow closer ever since.
I think the political forgiveness between Clinton and Obama is good for Democrats, and for the country. There was genuine and regrettable racial tension between the two men and their teams; they modeled how to heal it, in a country that grows more racially diverse by the day. And they clearly need one another. Clinton has been Obama’s best surrogate; Obama helps secure Clinton’s legacy by reminding us daily of the Clinton economy, and the way the former president reversed the trend of accelerating income inequality, however briefly.
Neither has a perfect populist record. Sadly, Clinton signed the repeal of Glass-Steagall banking regulations; Obama was slow to go after the banks who used that license to crash the economy. His administration has done more to help the banks’ victims in the last few months than they did in the first three years.
But both are presidents who did what they could to help the 99 percent, or the 47 percent, or whatever formulation we want to use to describe people who are struggling – maybe Jesse Jackson’s poetry about the folks “who take the early bus.” They didn’t do enough – God willing, Obama will do more – but that’s at least partly because increasingly unhinged Republicans didn’t let them.
One of the biggest lies of this big-lie campaign has been that Republicans just love themselves some Bill Clinton. In the Romney campaign narrative, Clinton was a compromising pro-business centrist who the GOP loved to work with; Obama is an uppity socialist who spurned their advances. When Bill Clinton embraces Barack Obama, literally and figuratively, he proves that’s a lie.
Both men are solid corporate centrists, if you acknowledge the Democratic Party’s left wing, where I stand. And Republicans nonetheless persecuted the centrist Clinton they now purport to love, accusing him of everything from murder to rape to drug-running. OK, that was just the far right. The mainstream GOP merely settled for impeaching him over behavior many indulged in privately themselves.
Clinton also helps Obama narrow Romney’s lead with white voters, particularly working class white men. As I write, Romney has a decisive lead among whites in the latest Pew poll, 54-39, but it’s less than the 60 percent he needs to win, and down from the 58-37 edge he had two weeks ago.
I found it unexpectedly moving to hear a hoarse and tired Clinton tell a New Hampshire crowd last night, “I gave my voice in the service of my president,” because it really means something – and it shouldn’t – to hear an older white man call Barack Obama “my president.” Clinton knows it means something – and that it shouldn’t – and therefore he’s reprising the mind-blowing no-sleep close to his 1992 campaign, this time in the service of another man, his president. Here’s hoping this campaign ends the same way, 20 years on.
Joan Walsh is Salon's editor at large and the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America." More Joan Walsh.
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