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The vast shadow of a former president

John Sandberg | Tuesday, September 11, 2012

It’s been nearly a week since the confetti from “Convention Season 2012” was swept up. Analysis of the Republican and Democratic National Conventions varied, but reaction from middle of the road commentators and voters was consistent: Mitt Romney was solid if not exciting, President Obama fell flat and Bill Clinton stole the show.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with a little presidential nostalgia. Better the highlight be a man who presided over a decade of economic prosperity, rather than the empty chair that bemused Republicans.

But while Clinton stoked the flames of the Democratic base as the race for the White House seriously gets underway, his influence is more of a detriment than benefit to the Obama re-election campaign.

In every instance Clinton makes his presence known, we see an older, more seasoned fighter stepping in to parry jabs being thrown at the man now in the ring.

Consequently, the main criticisms of Obama – the problems he faced in 2009 and the office of the presidency were too daunting for a one-term senator – are reinforced with each Clinton cameo. President Obama even joked Saturday about appointing Clinton as “secretary of explaining stuff.”

In order for this president to win reelection, he must convince voters his approach to the economy is the right one and not have someone else do the convincing for him.

Clinton’s speech was effective and powerful because of the way it was delivered and because of the man who delivered it. But when the crowds dispersed and the sounds of Fleetwood Mac faded away Wednesday night, nothing was revealed about Obama or his plan for America we didn’t already know.
Democrats are right to put Clinton’s expertise to use. He has long been known to relish the spotlight, and members of both parties readily concede, despite his flaws and occasional foot-in-mouth moments, Clinton remains a political mastermind. But there is a clear line between a strong endorsement and an outright commandeering of the spotlight, and Clinton’s presence in the campaign has undoubtedly fallen into the latter category.

Should Clinton have been given a speaking spot at the convention? Yes. Should he have taken the spot of officially nominating the president for re-election, a spot normally reserved for the vice president? No.

Obama’s speech wasn’t bad, but it did not sway many undecided minds.

Obama and Clinton have an uneasy past. There was the time in 2000 when Obama ran for Congress and Clinton endorsed his challenger, Bobby Rush. Then we saw the testy Democratic primary between Obama and Hillary Clinton in 2008. Political enemies and friends are born and die every hour, so it’s not unheard of that, despite their past, Clinton would one day land on Obama’s side.

But the most bizarre interaction between the two was in December 2010. Clinton appeared alongside Obama at an impromptu press conference promoting Obama’s deal with Republicans on tax cuts. Obama spoke briefly before letting Clinton take the podium. Soon after, Obama left the briefing completely, telling reporters, “You’re in good hands.” Clinton then fielded questions on the economy. Alone. For 20 minutes.

This year’s DNC was not the same as the impromptu briefing in 2010. But it did leave me with the same feeling: President Clinton is a better communicator than President Obama. President Clinton is more confident in his party’s approach towards the economy than President Obama.

President Clinton is a better leader than President Obama.

So what real implications do Clinton’s speech and subsequent appearances on the campaign trail have for Obama’s re-election? Democrats are inspired following the convention and Republicans remain entrenched as ever in their “anyone-but-Obama” mindset.

But for independent voters looking for a reason to choose a candidate, nothing is more important than strong leadership. Which individual, Obama or Romney, will be the stronger leader?

The balance between respecting what Clinton has to offer and keeping him out of the camera’s focus is a delicate one. But it’s a balance the current president must find if he wants to come out on top in November.

John Sandberg is a junior political science major. He can be reached at jsandbe1@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.