Tuned In

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.