Bill Clinton Spins his Old Magic
The Democratic National Convention has now wrapped up and voters, particularly those who are undecided, will have to determine if the party conventions did enough to define and distinguish each candidate. Associate Professor Michael Gibbons has been listening carefully to the speeches, and in this installment examines the sterling oratory of President Bill Clinton, who wowed the crowd in Charlotte but whose real task was to win over in TV land and motivate voters to turn out for Obama in November. Gibbons next post – examining President Obama’s speech – will conclude the series in coming days.
To get a sense of the significance and effect of former President Bill Clinton’s speech, one only need take note of two things. First, CNN political commentator Alex Castellanos, a Republican strategist and former aid to Mitt Romney said immediately after the speech: “This will be the moment that probably reelected Barack Obama.” Second, in television ratings, Clinton’s speech beat the NFL’s season inaugural game between two contenders for the NFC East championship and possible contenders for the Super Bowl, the New York Giants and the Dallas Cowboys. Even FOX commentators such as Brit Hume had to acknowledge the forcefulness of the former President’s speech, though criticizing its length.
The strength of the speech lies in two of its components. First, the passion with which the speech was delivered. There is a reason that the former president is able to animate an audience, and not just Democrats, and a reason why with a 69 percent approval rating he is the most popular living ex-president. His delivery at the convention, despite the length of the speech, clearly had an effect on the crowd as well as on most of the media.
In terms of substance, Clinton pointed out that the Tea Party dominated Republican Party considers compromise a form of heresy. Hence, even Republican incumbents with near perfect conservative voting records have been challenged and defeated by Tea Party candidates. Clinton, on the other hand, knows the necessity of compromise. Without give and take on the part of himself and the Republican dominated House of Representatives, led by Newt Gingrich, no balanced budget would have been possible in the late 1990’s. And he ticked off the number of Republican appointees to the Obama administration.
But the most important part of the speech was that, unlike Vice Presidential nominee Paul Ryan’s speech which was revealed to be permeated with untruths and distortions, Clinton presented a litany of facts and numbers all of which have been confirmed by multiple fact checkers. The accomplishments are substantial. The creation of 4.5 million private sector jobs resulting in part from the president’s recovery act, tax cuts for 95 percent of American workers, the addition of 500,000 more manufacturing jobs, the multiple successes in foreign policy, and the rescue of the auto industry that saved approximately 250,000 jobs in that industry, not to mention those jobs that were saved in related industries (tire, auto parts not manufactured by the auto companies, glass, radios, and so forth). But the perhaps the most stunning figure, and the one that attracted the most attention of the fact checkers, is the fact that in the 52 years since 1961, Republicans have held the White House for 28 years during which 24 million jobs were produced. Democrats have held the White House for 24 years, during which 44 million jobs were produced.
Now, it is well known that the factors that go into job creation are due to a number of influences, many of which are beyond the control of the President, both for good and for bad. Which party controls the Congress, the balance of trade, rates of investment, energy prices, outsourcing and downsizing of companies, and the list goes on. The result is that when things are good the incumbent president is likely to get too much credit and when they are bad, too much blame. Nonetheless, by making job creation an issue, the Republicans opened themselves up to the above criticism made by former President Clinton.
Despite the accolades heaped upon the Clinton speech, it does point to a weakness in the Obama campaign and more generally to his administration. Why did Obama need Bill Clinton, this late in the game, less than two months before the election, to point out the specific successes of his administration? Why haven’t the positives of Obamacare been more publicized. Why, as recent polls have shown, are so many Americans so misinformed about what it contains. For example, in one recent poll only 27 percent of Americans knew that Obamacare does not provide a federally funded healthcare option similar to Medicare and Medicaid. That means 73 percent either thought that it did or didn’t know enough about it to say one way or the other.
In some respects this failure of communication has plagued the Obama administration since day one. It was in evidence following the killing of Osama bin Laden when former members of the Bush administration flooded Sunday morning talk shows touting President Bush’s role in allegedly laying the foundations for tracking down bin Laden (even though he disbanded the CIA unit responsible for that task in 2006), while the Obama administration sent one undersecretary of state to one talk show and he was careful not only to give full credit to the SEAL team performing the task, but to the Bush administration for providing the groundwork for the operation. The contrast between Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” publicity for a task not accomplished and Obama’s reticence to communicate to Americans the specific successes of his administration is telling. It’s not surprising then that even commentators such as Nicholas Kristol of the New York Times have given a grade of “F” to Obama with respect to communication. If he expects to win what promises to be a close election, he’s going to have to do better than he has done so far.