Comeback Kid Bill Clinton Comes Back for Obama

Former president delivers rousing speech to Democratic faithful.

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Bill Clinton greets Barack Obama on stage during day two of the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- In a fiery speech that mixed self congratulation with lavish praise for his Democratic successor, former President Bill Clinton said Barack Obama is steering the nation on a path to prosperity similar to the one that Clinton paved in the 1990s, and he urged Americans Wednesday night to support Obama's re-election.

"If you want a winner-take-all, you're-on-your-own society, you should support the Republican ticket," Clinton told the packed convention hall, which erupted in frequent cheers and ovations during his remarks. "If you want a country of shared prosperity and shared responsibility--a we're-all-in-this-together society--you should vote for Barack Obama and Joe Biden."

And he drew a raucus ovation when he declared, "In Tampa, the Republican argument against the president's re-election was actually pretty simple and pretty snappy: We left him a total mess, he hasn't cleaned it up fast enough, so fire him and put us back in...I like the argument for President Obama's re-election a lot better. He inherited a deeply damaged economy; he put a floor under the crash, he began the long, hard road back to recovery, and laid the foundation for a more modern, more well-balanced economy that will produce millions of good new jobs, vibrant new businesses and lots of new wealth for the innovators."

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And Clinton directly addressed the question that Republicans have been asking all week: Are you better off today than you were four years ago? Clinton shouted, "I know we're better off because President Obama made the decisions he did."

Obama and his strategists are counting on Clinton to win over voters who admire the former president's economic policies, such as working-class whites and moderate independents--groups that have soured on Obama for failing to improve the economy enough to satisfy them. And he delivered a vigorous defense of Obama's record, pointing out the rescue of the automobile industry as an example of the type of long-term policies the nation needs.

Clinton acknowledged that many Americans aren't yet feeling the positive impact from Obama's policies but promised that this would happen during a second Obama term.

Team Obama hopes that Clinton will validate Obama on the economy. Many Americans remember the Clinton era as a time of prosperity and progress in reducing the federal deficit and on social issues. For example, he presided over a historic overhaul of welfare, imposing work requirements on beneficiaries that pleased many middle-class voters who felt that the program had become a colossal giveaway.

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has accused Obama of trying to weaken those work requirements, which the president denies. Clinton agreed with his Democratic successor and said Romney and his Republican allies were distorting Obama's record and his intentions simply to win votes.

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Polls show Clinton's popularity is higher than it's ever been since he left office because Americans see his eight years in the White House as a time of prosperity and common-sense policies. About 70 per cent of Americans think favorably of Clinton today, while Obama's favorability rating is about 50 per cent.

Since leaving the White House, Clinton has embarked on a series of humanitarian mission and charitable projects, such as raising money for tsunami relief in East Asia. This has enabled him to rehabilitate his reputation to some extent from the biggest blot on his presidency, his impeachment by the House of Representatives for lying about his affair with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky. He was acquitted by the Senate but the episode persuaded many Americans that Clinton's private character was deeply flawed. Over time, Americans increasingly have separated those flaws from his public policies, which are widely admired today.

One irony is that the Republicans, who led the way in impeaching Clinton and said his sexual misbehavior demeaned the institution of the presidency, now lavish praise on him and say Obama comes off poorly by contrast. "When it comes to the state of the economy, President Clinton just can't match President Clinton," says Amanda Henneberg, a spokeswoman for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. "Just this week, gas prices set a new record, the national debt topped $16 trillion, manufacturing slowed, and the number of Americans on food stamps hit a record high. Mitt Romney will reverse President Obama's record of decline and disappointment by passing pro-growth policies that will get Americans back to work."

Clinton's featured appearance at the convention was a high-wire act. His aides coordinated with the Obama campaign on themes, but as was his custom when he was in office, the draft of his speech went through so many changes, by Clinton and his own advisers, that Obama and his staff weren't sure exactly what Clinton would say until the words came out of his mouth.

Ken Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News. He writes the daily blog, "Ken Walsh's Washington," for usnews.com, and is the author of "The Presidency" column for the U.S. News Weekly. He can be reached at kwalsh@usnews.com and on Facebook and Twitter.