09/06/2012 05:48 am ET Updated Sep 06, 2012

Bill Clinton Descends From Olympus

CHARLOTTE – Had life turned out differently, Bill Clinton would have been a great trial lawyer.

Last night he used his wit, charm and guile – and a lifetime's knowledge of politics – to mount a better defense of, and case for, the Obama presidency than Barack Obama has managed on his own.

Over the next two months it will be up to the jury of the undecided to choose whether to convict the president or give him a reprieve. In the meantime, Clinton's summation gave beleaguered and confused Democrats a road map for how to win reelection in a tough economy, the continued weakness of which many voters blame on Obama.

If Obama, who once derided Clinton as a relic of the past, resented having to call on the former president for help, it didn't show. And if Clinton still thought that Obama's story was a "fairy tale," the former president certainly didn't say so at the Time Warner Cable Arena.

There was no soaring rhetoric; Clinton wisely judged that the jury of voters wouldn't stand for it after all that hope and change stuff.

When Clinton finished his nearly 50-minute instructional oration, Obama emerged from backstage to embrace his defense counsel.

It was a full three-second man-hug, and it seemed genuine, especially on Obama's part.

A larger-than-life figure among Democrats now, the former president filled the hall with his presence like a silver-haired Olympian figure, commanding silence, laughter and applause at will.

It wasn't quite a valedictory.

At 66, Clinton, who has had heart bypass surgery and is devoted to a vegan diet, looked sinewy enough (though some in the hall thought they detected a slight tremor in his elegantly sculpted hands).

Still, for the first time, there was a sense that the Democrats – and the country for that matter – would not soon see another figure of his kind: the maddening yet brilliant mix of brains, eloquence, leadership skill, indulgent self-regard and not-quite-met potential that made him the quintessential Baby Boomer figure.

With Republicans leaving details of their proposals vague – relying instead on the practice of pummeling Obama with statistics about the weakness of the economy – Clinton shrewdly turned defense into offense with specifics.

Privately briefed on the stats and the programs by Obama aides who had once been his own (Obama economic director Gene Sperling chief among them), Clinton cited and explained in understandable detail programs and achievements that have helped dig the country at least part way out of the Great Recession that began in the administration of President George W. Bush.

It was a tour de force of Clinton at his best: sensible, centrist in tone, amenable-sounding even as he depicted the GOP as a party in thrall to a hate-filled extremist wing.

He not only defended Obama's economic record with a series of hopeful statistics and specific accomplishments – the auto bailout, for example – he made the case that the president's approach to the economy, which sees a central role for government in fostering smart, high-tech growth, as the best way to create jobs.

It all sounded so sensible in Clinton's telling, and there is a reason why he is so good at it. As a rising Democratic governor in Arkansas in the 1980s, he had to swim upstream in the conservative tide created by Ronald Reagan. Clinton was a master at it, finding roles for government with a centrist, sensible, pro-business feel.

Clinton also was able to swim upstream because he had years of practice selling the theory of positive government involvement to skeptical Arkansans. In years and years of travel through the state as governor, he learned to explain government in simple terms to conservative country voters at every Quik Stop Market.

Obama had, and has, no such experience.

But he doesn't need it now. All he has to do is follow the Clinton script.



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