CHARLOTTE — Bill Clinton offered an impassioned defense of President Obama as a leader in the mold of his own image Wednesday night, praising him for rescuing an ailing economy even as Republicans sought to thwart him at every turn.
Mitt Romney has tried to position himself as Clinton’s heir in recent months, employing a false claim that Obama gutted Clinton’s signature welfare reform bill, comparing the two presidents on jobs and claiming he’d follow Clinton’s lead in working with the other party.
Clinton made clear that there was only one candidate in the race who embodied his values.
“If you want a future of shared prosperity, where the middle class is growing and poverty is declining, where the American dream is alive and well and where the United States maintains its leadership as a force for peace, and justice, and prosperity, in this highly competitive world, you have to vote for Barack Obama,” he said.
Clinton’s speech was a long one — over 40 minutes and close to 6,000 words long — and the former president frequently departed from his prepared remarks. But the audience hung on every word, cheering on every key line right on cue.
His remarks took dead aim at the heart of Romney’s campaign theme: that whatever bad hand Obama was dealt in 2009, today’s unemployment figures belong to him. Romney’s case, Clinton said: “We left a mess. He has not cleaned it up fast enough, so put us back in.”
He compared Obama’s circumstances to his own after he inherited an economy struck by recession in 1993 then suffered huge losses in the midterm elections as the recovery progressed slowly.
“We could see the policies were working, that the economy was growing, but most people did not feel it yet,” he said. The only difference, he said, was that Obama started with “a much weaker economy.”
“No president — no president — not me, not any of my predecessors, no one could have fully repaired all the damage that he found in just four years,” Clinton said. “He has laid the foundations for a new modern successful economy, a shared prosperity, and if you will renew the president’s contract, you will feel it.”
Romney often cites Clinton as a model of bipartisanship he’d look to follow. But Clinton defended Obama for trying to work with a Republican Party that never intended to return the favor. Clinton invoked Mitch McConnell’s famous declaration that the GOP’s No. 1 goal was to deny Obama a second term.
And if the audience needed further proof that Obama is wiling to work with his own opponents, he asked them to look at how many Clinton aides are in the White House despite Obama’s primary fight with another Clinton.
“He even appointed Hillary,” Clinton said.
In another throwback to his administration, Clinton flatly decried Romney’s claim that Obama “gutted” work requirements in his welfare law as a lie, saying the issue “is personal to me.”
“[Romney’s] pollster said, ‘We are not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact checkers,’” Clinton said. “Finally, I can say, that is true.”
Touting his legacy of economic growth and balanced budgets, Clinton slammed Romney as the latest in a long line of so-called small-government Republicans who he battled as president and who exploded the deficit under GOP administrations.
“The Romney plan fails the first test of fiscal responsibility: The numbers do not add up,” he said.
Romney’s budget combines ambitious goals for a balanced budget with few details on where he would cut spending or how he would pay for a 20 percent cut on income tax rates. Clinton warned that Romney’s promises would either require him to gut federal spending or, more likely, cut taxes for the rich yet again without ever offsetting the cuts elsewhere.
“We simply cannot afford to give the reins of government to someone who will double down on trickle-down,” he said.
As for Obama, his plan “cuts the debt, honors our values, brightens the future of our children, families and nations,” Clinton said. “It is a heckuva lot better. It passes the arithmetic test, it passes the values test, far more importantly.”
Returning to that values theme, Clinton ended his speech characterizing the Republican platform as cold-hearted and tilted toward the rich.
“If you want a winner-take-all, you-are-on-your-own society, you should support the Republican ticket,” he said. “If you want a country of shared opportunities and shared responsibility, a we-are-all-in-this-together society, you should vote for Barack Obama and Joe Biden.”
As Clinton ended his address to thunderous applause, Obama himself walked onstage, bringing to life the exact image his speech was meant to convey: Clinton and Obama, side by side, undeniable partners in the same fight.
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.