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Bill Clinton Campaigns As Obama's No. 1 Surrogate

Jun 4, 2012
Originally published on June 4, 2012 11:10 am

Former President Bill Clinton and President Obama used to have a famously rocky relationship. But the days when Clinton tried to help his wife, now secretary of state, defeat Obama in the 2008 primaries are ancient history.

Former Clinton strategist Carter Eskew says the ex-president is almost always an asset for Obama.

"Bill Clinton can do a lot of things for Barack Obama," Eskew says. "He can raise a lot of money. He has very good political instincts and good political ideas. And in an interesting way, Bill Clinton may be able to carry the positive narrative for Barack Obama better than Obama can."

As Obama tries to explain his economic plan to cut the deficit while investing in clean energy, education and infrastructure, he can look to the script Clinton wrote in the 1990s. And Clinton, as a former commander in chief, can help in other ways. He appeared in the first Obama re-election campaign ad — describing the risk Obama took when he ordered the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.

And the former president can skewer Republican challenger Mitt Romney. In this example, Clinton was speaking at a fiscal policy summit: "It's like Romney said, 'I'm running for the president of the student body of this extreme right-wing group, and the real argument was that I couldn't be their president because I wasn't right wing enough, so I had to get over there and pretend that I was.' "

Clinton's point was that it's hard to know who Romney really is.

But sometimes Obama's No. 1 surrogate messes up the talking points. Like the other day on CNN, when Clinton undercut the Obama campaign's attacks on Romney's record as a businessman and a governor.

"There's no question that, in terms of getting up, going to the office and basically performing the essential functions of the office, a man who's been governor and had a sterling business career crosses the qualification threshold," Clinton said.

It would be hard to keep the active and voluble former president off the political scene, and for better or worse, he has become the president's highest-profile advocate. But what's more surprising is that he has been given a role in Romney's stump speech.

In Des Moines, Iowa, recently, Romney reminded voters that almost a generation ago, Clinton announced that the era of "Big Government" was over.

"President Clinton was signaling to his own party that Democrats should no longer try to govern by proposing a new program for every problem," Romney said. "President Obama tucked away the Clinton doctrine in his large drawer of discarded ideas, along with transparency and bipartisanship."

After the laughter subsided, Romney went on, "It's enough to make you wonder if maybe it was a personal beef with the Clintons, but probably it runs much deeper than that."

Was Romney trying to revive the feud between the Obamas and the Clintons? That seems unlikely. Instead, says Republican strategist Keith Appell, Romney is trying to target Clinton fans — rural, white, working-class voters in swing states.

"The Romney campaign sees an opportunity to get those people in his column, and not only in states like West Virginia, which is probably going to go for Romney anyway, but people across the border in Ohio and in Pennsylvania," Appell says. "A lot of those folks are Hillary Clinton supporters and fans of Bill Clinton, and they're up for grabs."

Those voters, says Appell, remember that under Clinton, budgets got balanced and welfare was ended — the kinds of positive economic news they're not seeing under Obama.

But former Clinton adviser Paul Begala says that tactic could backfire on Romney.

"All he's doing is setting himself up for a fall," Begala says. "So he goes to, say, southern Ohio, critical swing area, pretty Republican area but the kind of place where President Clinton is very popular, even though it's a pretty Republican area, and he says things like that — well, then Bill Clinton can come in and he'll have the last word."

And the last word from Bill Clinton will be: Vote for Barack Obama.

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In New York City tonight, some wealthy Democratic donors will sit down to dinner with both President Obama and former President Bill Clinton. Other than having two stars, this fundraiser is a pretty straightforward campaign event, although the relationship between the two men is a little more complicated.

NPR's Mara Liasson reports.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Bill Clinton and Barack Obama used to have a famously rocky relationship, but the days when the former president tried to help his wife defeat Mr. Obama in the 2008 primaries are ancient history. Now, says former Clinton strategist Carter Eskew, Bill Clinton is almost always an asset for President Obama.

CARTER ESKEW: Bill Clinton can do a lot of things for Barack Obama. He can raise a lot of money. He has very good political instincts and good political ideas, and in an interesting way, you know, Bill Clinton may be able to carry the positive narrative for Barack Obama better than Obama can.

LIASSON: As Mr. Obama tries to explain his economic plan to cut the deficit while investing in clean energy, education and infrastructure, he can look to the script Bill Clinton wrote in the 1990s. And President Clinton, as a former commander-in-chief, can help in other ways. He appeared in the first Obama campaign ad, describing the risk the president took when he ordered the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

LIASSON: And the former president can skewer Mitt Romney.

: It's like Romney said I'm running for the president of the student body of this extreme right wing group and the real argument was that I couldn't be their president because I wasn't right wing enough, so I had to get over there and pretend that I was.

LIASSON: Mr. Clinton was speaking at a fiscal policy summit, but his point was that it's hard to know who Mitt Romney really is. However, sometimes Barack Obama's number one surrogate does mess up the talking points. Like the other day on CNN, when the former president undercut the Obama campaign's attacks on Romney's record as a businessman and a governor.

: There's no question that in terms of getting up and going to the office and, you know, basically performing the essential functions of the office, a man who's been governor and had a sterling business career crosses the qualification threshold.

LIASSON: It would be hard to keep the active and voluble former president off the political scene, and for better or worse he's become the president's highest profile advocate. But what's more surprising is that he's also been given a role in Mitt Romney's stump speech.

In Des Moines, Iowa recently, Romney reminded voters that almost a generation ago Bill Clinton announced that the era of big government was over.

MITT ROMNEY: President Clinton was signaling to his own party that Democrats should no longer try to govern by proposing a new program for every problem. President Obama tucked away the Clinton doctrine in his large drawer of discarded ideas, along with transparency and bipartisanship.

(APPLAUSE)

ROMNEY: It's enough to make you wonder if maybe it was a personal beef with the Clintons, but probably that - it runs much deeper than that. President Obama is an old school liberal whose first instinct is to...

LIASSON: Was Romney trying to revive the feud between the Obamas and the Clintons? That seems unlikely. Instead, says Republican strategist Keith Appell, Romney is trying to target Clinton fans, rural, white working class voters.

KEITH APPELL: The Romney campaign sees an opportunity to get those people in his column, and not only in states like West Virginia, which is probably going to go for Romney anyway, but people across the border, in Ohio and in Pennsylvania. A lot of those folks are Hilary Clinton supporters and fans of Bill Clinton and they're up for grabs.

LIASSON: Those voters, says Appell, remember that under Clinton budgets got balanced and welfare was ended - the kinds of positive economic news they're not seeing under President Obama.

But former Clinton advisor Paul Begala says that tactic could backfire on Romney.

PAUL BEGALA: All he's doing is setting himself up for a fall, so he goes to, say, Southern Ohio, critical swing area, pretty Republican area, but kind of place where President Clinton's very popular, even though it's pretty Republican area, and he says things like that - well, then Bill Clinton can come in and he'll have the last word.

LIASSON: And the last word from Bill Clinton will be vote for Barack Obama.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.