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The Morning After: Obama Turns to Bill Clinton, Explainer-in-Chief

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Barack Obama has a reputation as a brilliant speaker, but not, on his own behalf, an effective talker. He has delivered passages of soaring rhetoric and inspired crowds, but as President, he has faltered at simply talking to citizens: laying out, convincingly, plainly, point by point, why and how he believes his policies will work and have worked.

For that, on Wednesday night, he brought in Bill Clinton. The former President and onetime political rival of Obama delivered the kind of brief for Obama’s policies that his successor could have used long ago. Taking the stage to roaring applause and his old Fleetwood Mac theme song, Clinton made a passionate but deliberate argument like an Arkansas courthouse lawyer, leaning against the rail and leading the jury through his argument step by step.

There have been a lot of analyses of Clinton’s political style — empathy, people skills, wonkiness — but one that may be underestimated is the fact that the man can explain the hell out of a thing. Clinton didn’t deliver poetry; he gave a talk and told a narrative.

(PHOTOS: The Democratic National Convention)

Obama, Clinton said, “inherited a deeply damaged economy. He put a floor under the crash.” He was beset by Republicans in Congress who treated democracy as “a blood sport.” (Clinton, who was impeached in the politicized Monica Lewinsky perjury case, made a point for bipartisan cred by saying that he never “hated” Republicans the way some hate Obama, and even got the DNC crowd to applaud George W. Bush — who was pretty much erased from history at the RNC — for his AIDS-relief program.) And then he laid out his case as to why Obama’s policies have been effective and worth sticking by, point by point.

By point. By point. Clinton’s speech, loaded with figures and policy details, ran nearly 50 minutes. It featured the kind of delivery that made pundits say his State of the Union speeches were too long and wonky (only to see them go over big with voters in polls). But his explanations were lucid and user-friendly; he laid them out like a trail of breadcrumbs. Now I’m gonna talk about Medicare. Now I’m gonna talk about student loans. Point No. 1 … It’s fitting that his most effective rhetorical device in the speech was a “scoreboard” — more numbers — comparing Democratic and Republican economic records.

What lets Clinton succeed at this kind of speech is, in part, that people say they want detail and specifics from politicians, and he takes them at their word. But also, he puts over the wonkery, not so much with stirring language as simple charm. He played, he riffed, he rolled his eyes. He lighted on just the right colloquialism for an attack on Paul Ryan’s critique of Obama for “raiding” Medicare through a plan that Ryan also adopted to reduce payments to insurance companies. Clinton said, “It takes some brass to attack a guy for doing what you did.”

Clinton, of course, has a solid core of brass, which is exactly what makes him so effective in such situations. The man loves the game, loves being onstage, loves being loved — and he’s expansive enough to let viewers share the feeling. There’s a difference between him and Obama, whose best speeches are better at aweing than embracing their audience, and so part of Clinton’s speech aimed at bringing Obama, himself and the home and convention audiences into a group hug. (Literally too: the President joined his predecessor, arm around his back, at the end of the speech.) “I want to nominate a man who’s cool on the outside but who burns for America on the inside,” Clinton said.

Did America feel the burn? I’ll be interested to see how many people tuned in through the end of the speech, which ran nearly a half-hour past prime time, and of course it will still be up to Obama to connect in his big speech on Thursday night. But for all the fretting before Wednesday’s speech — Should the Obama people vet Clinton’s speech more closely? Will 42 undermine 44? — it turns out to be not a bad political move to give Bill Clinton the stage and let the man talk until he’s done.

Because I believe you should know this, here is where I disclose that I voted for Obama in 2008 and plan to again this year. As I’ve written before, I think that most people who care enough about politics to write about it have political opinions, and you should be able to take them into consideration if it matters to you. As a columnist, it’s my job to be opinionated but also to call things the way I see them without spinning them to help my side win, and it should be your right to decide whether I’ve done so. My political leanings, though, are not why I didn’t write a similar post on the second night of the Republican National Convention — I was on vacation that week.

43 comments
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Harm45
Harm45

"One that was written, edited and practiced."

 

Considering that the written speech was approx. 3,100 words and the delivered speech was 5,900 words, that is probably not the track you want to argue.

Or are you not going to let your post be dictated by fact-checkers? :-)

The Hoobie
The Hoobie

I don't know, James, my perception is that it's not that President Obama is ineffective at explaining and defending his policies, it's just that, for sad reasons of realpolitik, he can't always speak in his own defense or promote his own policies most effectively, and he knows this. I mean, as Alan Simpson himself has said, if Obama had given his full-throated endorsement to the Simpson-Bowles plan, that would have killed it dead on the spot; it would have had even less chance than it did to gain any traction. I've often been frustrated with this situation but also impressed with how the administration has carefully navigated this reality.

I think some defenses and explanations have to come from your friends. We Democrats are just so unbelievably lucky that in addition to our eloquent president, we have so many amazing speakers---Clinton, the First Lady, and even (don't laugh) Joe Biden! (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/...

And as far as connecting with a crowd goes, I have never understood the idea that Obama has problems. I've always been mystified by the "Obama is chilly" meme. He seems so genuine and warm to me; there's a reason those Talking Points Memo slideshows of him giving hugs and interacting with kids are so popular. This is a little thing, but I love the way Obama always closes his eyes when he hugs people (especially kids)---as you do, as part of enjoying the warmth of the hug. Here's one of my favorite pictures of the '08 campaign: http://media.photobucket.com/i...

I just think we can celebrate Clinton's amazing speech without dinging (or pre-dinging) Obama in comparison. :-)

lucelucy
lucelucy

 Fire Up and Ready for Joe!  Loved it.  He was great!

bkuykendall
bkuykendall

Did I go to sleep and somehow go back in time to 2008?  Has anyone told the Democratic Party that they have been in charge for the last 4 years?  Do they not recall that they have had control of the Senate for 6 years, the House for 4 out of 6 years, and the White House for 4 out of 6 years?

If they are really proud of their plans and believe in them - why won't they talk about their record?

ipfletch
ipfletch

That's....kinda what they did, but y'know, never mind.

If you're gonna mention a party's record, I'll just ask this: since in the GOP's eyes times were apparently much better in the 8 years before Obama, where was their previous standard-bearer? Not seen, nor even referred to by their own party for the entirety of the convention.

Awe-inspiring, that.

bkuykendall
bkuykendall

 Was never a big fan of President Bush "43".  I didn't agree with attacking Iraq - Hussein was evil, but was a controllable evil.  I also didn't agree with the spending spree that he and the Republican controlled congress went on.  However; it should be noted that in the first year of his first term he faced 9/11 and the first year of his second term he faced Katrina.  Whether we agree with all the decisions he made when facing these crisis (and there is plenty to disagree with), it must be acknowledged that these were two of the biggest disasters faced by America since WWII.

We should also remember that President Bush "41" faced the invasion of Kuwait (leading to Desert Shield/Storm) and Hurricane Andrew.

In comparison to the two Bush Presidencies, President Clinton had a pretty calm and easy 8 years.

BTW - as a disclosure - I served under Presidents Reagan, Bush (41), and Clinton.

ipfletch
ipfletch

I respect your disclosure and while I grant everything you mention above, my point in noting the complete absence of (and lack of reference to) not only Bush 43 himself but just about any representative of his administration was this: while the Democrats' previous standard-bearer screwed up huge on a personal level- hey, that just can't be denied -he delivered on the job and his party knows that. Whereas the GOP's previous standard-bearer did comparatively the reverse of that and therefore they'd rather just pretend those 8 years didn't happen.

All in all, it's understandable- were they to do otherwise someone might do the obvious and note that their party is primarily- but not solely -to blame for much of what has gone wrong since 2000.

COfoEVA
COfoEVA

Did you even watch the speeches?  It was all about the record and how we have stopped the bleeding and moved forward since day 1 of the Obama administration.  Life IS better now than it was in 2008; the economy is better, the stock market is better, unemployment is better, the housing market is better, the automobile industry is better, the list goes on...

I don't expect someone who has obviously been taken by the lies and misinformation of the right to understand though, fortunately you are the minority.

bkuykendall
bkuykendall

I've been taken?

The economy is better?

 

U.S. Incomes Fell More in Recovery, Sentier Says:  http://www.bloomberg.com/news/...

U.S. economic outlook darkens ahead of vote:

http://www.reuters.com/article...

U.S. economic outlook worsens after jobs report:

http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-50...

Unemployment is better?

Unemployment January 2009 - 7.6%

Unemployment in every month since has been over 8%

http://www.ncsl.org/issues-res...

Housing is better?

Home Prices Declined to New Lows in 2011:

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03...

Home Prices Seen Dropping 10% in U.S. on Foreclosures: Mortgages:http://www.bloomberg.com/news/... Automobile Industry is better?Auto bailout price tag rises to $25 billion. How high will it go?:http://www.washingtonpost.com/...

U.S. Auto Bailout Will Cost Billions More Than Previously Thought: Treasury:http://www.huffingtonpost.com/... list does go on...By the numbers: Federal debt, deficit and spending:http://www.cnn.com/2012/08/02/... Cliff' Has Many Perils

CBO Warns of Recession, or More Big Deficits, Depending on Congressional Action:http://online.wsj.com/article/...

U.S. Will Enter Recession If 'Fiscal Cliff' Not Avoided: CBO:http://www.huffingtonpost.com/... says he won't bring budget to floor this year:http://washingtonexaminer.com/... - I'm the one who believes the "lies and misinformation".  I guess life is better...

JohnOBX
JohnOBX

Clinton is one of the few politicians that make you question the necessity of term limits.  

James Dunn
James Dunn

hey lIberal liars did you know the DNC flew Monica to the convention so BILLY could get one of her famous BJ'S so when he walked on stage he'd have a legitimate smile on his fACE????

COfoEVA
COfoEVA

 Whatever it takes.

mantisdragon91
mantisdragon91

 I thought Paul Ryan put her on his back and ran to the Convention. Probably got there in under 3 hours.

beaverorduck
beaverorduck

Democrats are so easily googly eyed over this stuff.  It was a speech.  One that was written, edited and practiced.  It was like watching an actor play a part.  Nothing more, nothing less.  I watched the entire speech, and try as I might, I did not see the Lord descend from a cloud.  It really wasn't that amazing.

Harm45
Harm45

"One that was written, edited and practiced."

 

Considering that the written speech was approx. 3,100 words and the delivered speech was 5,900 words, that is probably not the argument you want to go with.

Or have you decided that your post is not going to be dictated by fact checkers? :-)

Guest
Guest

Thank God you showed up to set me straight. Why would you nitpick something so meaningless? How about if I rephrase just say that the "context" of his speech was written, edited and practiced. Satisfied?

anon76returns
anon76returns

Considering you've come to an entertainment website to use the analogy "boring as watching an actor", yeah I'm pretty satisfied.  You managed to discredit yourself without necessitating the intervention of a 2nd party.  Bravo!

ipfletch
ipfletch

Except that, y'know, actual FACTS were laid out instead of xenophobia and straight-up lies.

The man has star quality and charisma and knows when to use it effectively- and this is on top of being a major details guy; not much point in ragging on him for what comes naturally.

mantisdragon91
mantisdragon91

It was compared to the lack of substance and honesty coming out of Tampa. Kind of like watching a PHD speak after tuning into Jersey Shore.

theriteone
theriteone

I agree.  I could tell which of my employees stayed up to watch the speech last night.  They came to work acting like they had had a long night of great sex.  The regrets will start in a few hours.

COfoEVA
COfoEVA

 Only people that have sex with you regret it, and it aint great

ipfletch
ipfletch

 Wow, more cheap shots. Impressive.

LoudRambler
LoudRambler

 Clinton is a freaking howitzer with laser aim, GPS system and a bunch of spy satellites flying around it.

 He nailed it. 

 Obama may never venture into the waters that Clinton threaded, but Clinton managed to go there - and nail it.

 Frankly, I'd rather have US do away with 2-term limit and have Clinton win in 2000.

ekbusser
ekbusser

I am really disappointed that I went to bed. But I couldn't take the husband-remote-flipping between the convention coverage and football.  Hopefully I can find the speech on you tube.  But, full disclosure, Former President Clinton doesn't have to convince me.  I'm a democrat and voting for President Obama.  Unfortunately, most of the people Clinton had to convince probably didn't tune in.

The Hoobie
The Hoobie

It was like watching a rock star, anxious to hear your favorite song! I was so hoping to hear him respond to the Romney/Ryan ticket's completely bogus welfare attack on the President. And he did! And it was AWESOME. I reacted like Nelson in The Simpsons when Andy Williams sings "Moon River."

anon76returns
anon76returns

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v...

Its still funny in Spanish.

The Hoobie
The Hoobie

Ha! You know I went looking for a clip of that Simpsons moment to put in my comment, and all I could find was that very same Spanish version. I almost included it. :) It IS still funny in Spanish.

srand01
srand01

 I agree, and considering he ad-libbed many parts of

the speech …

srand01
srand01

 I agree, and considering he ad-libbed parts of the

speech …

srand01
srand01

I

Agree, Clinton's speech was amazing, and bearing in mind he ad-libbed quite

a bit of the speech.  He is an amazing speaker!

dmbfan93933
dmbfan93933

I got up at 2:30 this morning so I could watch the entire speech before work.  It was masterful.

I'm a long-time Republican and did not vote for Clinton, but that was a great speech.

One thing I know for sure is that Mitt Romney is NOT a leader.  He will say whatever he thinks his audience wants to hear.  On the other hand Obama has taken stands that he knows will cost him votes, and because of that he seems like much more of a leader.

JZimm09
JZimm09

As the speech hit 1/2 hr, I found myself concerned that he wrap it up.  But as he launched into each point so directly, simply and so satisfyingly right...each time I found myself listening amp; applauding.  To say he was great doesn't even take 1/2 the measure of it.

lucelucy
lucelucy

Bill brought it!  I knew he would.  Who the hell pays the chattering classes to suggest that he won't I don't know.  I can't think of anybody in their right mind, in this political climate, who, on hearing that Bill Clinton would put Barack Obama's name in nomination, actually believed he would have a shiv up his sleeve.

There was even an attempt in punditry afterward (on CNN? I forget.  I watched on C-Span, then went to Cable News for reaction) to have a conversation about *why* Clinton didn't stick it to Obama.

As Gandalf once said, "Run!  You fools!"

Bill Clinton is a lot of things, and he's a lot of things I like, and one of those things he is is a Democrat.  And I truly believe that he's a Democrat because he believes in most of the stuff he talks about.   I would bet anything that, every time he saw Obama on TV trying to do the 'splainin', he must have been throwing things at the walls and champing at the bit.  Because I do believe that our "cool on the outside" President also believes in most of the stuff he talks about, and that Clinton knows it.  But Clinton could see from half a continent away that Obama wasn't selling it the way it should be sold.

I loved him for telling us that the economic mess Obama inherited was much worse than the one he, Clinton, had and that not even he, Clinton, could have fixed it in four years.  Robert Caro, the LBJ biographer, told Fareed Zakaria that he didn't think that the master legislator LBJ could not have gotten legislation out of that Congress.

Full disclosure:  I'm a Democrat.  ;)

charlieromeobravo
charlieromeobravo

Clinton's speech was really something to see.  I did sit through the whole thing and, while is was a bit long, I thought he did a really amazing job running down the GOP's claims and selling Obama's policies.  Clinton didn't forget to mention his own presidency here and there but on the whole his speech was the most generous endorsement I've ever seen, more so when you consider the bad blood that once existed between the two men.  The RNC had NOTHING like that happening on stage on Romney's behalf, nor did they have the crowd energy that the crowd at the DNC has had.  I agree that the Obama administration hasn't effectively sold its own policies much of the time.  Too bad Clinton isn't for hire.  He'd make a great press secretary :)

Cheryl Franco
Cheryl Franco

He will say whatever he thinks his audience wants to hear.  On the other hand Obama has taken stands that he knows will cost him votes, and because of that he seems like much more of a leader. http://NewsUsaVote.blogspot.co...

ReadHead322
ReadHead322

I did stay tuned for the entire speech, even though I get up for work at 4:30. It was riveting. It was cogent and informative. It was welcoming and fun. In a word, brilliant. He said all the things I've been begging my party to say. About the state of the economy, about what the Republicans have planned for our country if they take over, about the hate that the far right has for our President. No one can do it like Bill. God Bless him.

I found myself wondering as the crowd chanted FOUR MORE YEARS! who exactly they were talking about...