Friday, August 3, 2012

Obama's Clinton gamble -- Aug. 2, 2012 column


As his adoring fans cheer, the country’s most beloved Democrat strides onstage at the Democratic National Convention and delivers a prime-time speech that makes all the difference come Election Day.

Nah, I’m not imagining Barack Obama’s big night in Charlotte.

It’s Bill Clinton I see. Clinton is more popular and potentially more powerful in motivating Democrats this fall, something Obama conceded when he tapped Clinton for the high-profile role of formally nominating Obama for a second term.

Two in three Americans now have a favorable opinion of Bill Clinton, about the same as at his first presidential inauguration in 1993. Even the haters have mellowed. Only 28 percent of people have an unfavorable opinion of Clinton, an all-time low.

Obama, who desperately needs goodwill, had a respectable 54 percent favorable rating in the same Gallup poll, released July 30.

Bill Clinton has triumphed. A dozen years after Al Gore treated him like a bad smell throughout the 2000 campaign, Clinton is the go-to guy for Obama. The Clintons must love that. Hillary Clinton – whose favorable rating is the same 66 percent as her husband’s – will be a no-show at the Democratic convention. As secretary of state, she is not in campaign mode. Not this year.

If anyone can breathe life into flagging Democrats, Bill Clinton can. And yet, his words can and will be held against Obama. Four years ago Clinton compared voting for Obama to a roll of the dice, and he recently said Romney had a “sterling” business career and was qualified to be president.

Even if Clinton curbs his independent streak and speaks persuasively for Obama, his presence inevitably invites comparisons. Newt Gingrich, hardly an impartial judge, predicted Clinton’s convention speech would “shrink” Obama.

Putting Clinton front and center reminds voters that he worked successfully with a Republican Congress. The rejoinder of course is that Clinton did not have a Senate majority leader who said from Day One that holding the president to one term was his top priority. Would Clinton have found a way to work around that obstacle? No one knows.

A few weeks before Clinton was nominated for a second presidential term. he signed into law bipartisan welfare reform, a minimum wage increase and health insurance portability. Clinton didn’t get everything he wanted, but he was a pragmatist. He infuriated liberals, but at the convention and into the fall he could point to fresh accomplishments on behalf of the middle class.

At the August 1996 signing ceremony for the welfare reform law, Clinton said welfare would no longer be a political issue and politicians would not be able to attack each other or the poor. At the time, many thought that wishful thinking. But he was right.

Welfare stayed largely off the table for many years. A disturbing report by the General Accountability Office in 2005 riled Democrats and Republicans with its finding that some states were counting toward the work requirements such activities as getting a massage and writing in a journal.

Overall, welfare rolls declined, though, until the recession hit and the ranks of children living in poverty started to rise. And then last month the Obama administration sparked a Republican rebellion by announcing more flexibility for states in how they run their welfare programs. The administration said it would grant waivers to allow states to experiment with their welfare-to-work programs without filing paperwork.

Even though more than two dozen Republican governors had signed a letter asking for more flexibility, Republican leaders reacted angrily. They accused Obama of gutting the law’s work requirements and, in effect, killing welfare reform. House Speaker John Boehner called the change a “partisan disgrace.” Romney said it was “completely misdirected.”

Yes, these same Republicans usually want states to have more power to create programs that meet their residents’ needs – not less. And no state has to apply for a waiver. It’s voluntary.

An official in the federal agency that administers welfare said, “Many states report that their caseworkers are spending more time complying with federal documentation requirements that helping parents find jobs.” The White House press secretary called the complaints “hypocritical.”

Ah, but it’s campaign season. Politics overrides everything.

By putting Clinton onstage, Obama can remind voters that a Democratic president once got things done and gamble that they will think he can do the same. That’s Obama’s big gamble.

©2012 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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