Obama-Bill Clinton relationship unthinkable four years ago

The 'Bill Clinton factor' at the DNC
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Story highlights

  • President Clinton will speak Wednesday during the Democratic National Convention
  • Clinton recently has drifted off the Obama campaign's message
  • The level of trust between them seemed unthinkable four years ago
  • "Nobody has a better grasp and understanding of the issues than this man," Obama says

Another week, another convention plagued by weather woes. Another prime-time address by an iconic American figure who, hours before his speech, hadn't yet submitted a finished draft to organizers for suggestions and edits.

Unlike Clint Eastwood, President Bill Clinton has had plenty of practice on this sort of stage. Tonight will be his seventh speech in as many conventions.

Still, over the past few months, he's provided the Obama campaign with some accidental aggravations, displaying a unsettling tendency to drift off-message and derail narratives. He's used language that seemed to put some daylight between his and Obama's positions on tax cuts while the spotlight was on the president's policy, and he praised Mitt Romney's business record while it served as a central line of attack.

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Yet the day before the speech, an official for a campaign that hadn't laid eyes on a single word of it insisted they had no concerns.

"We've been in close contact with him, and he is working on his remarks," said Jen Psaki, the Obama campaign's deputy communications director. "And I'm sure, when he's done, we'll see them. We have absolute confidence about what he's going to say."

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It's a level of trust between the two men that would have been unthinkable four years ago, when Clinton's convention speech backing Obama came while primary season wounds were still raw. But over the past year, a new relationship has taken shape.

A year ago, the Obama team approached some of Clinton's top advisers in an effort to bring the former president on board in earnest, according to New Yorker correspondent and CNN contributor Ryan Lizza. A rapprochement that Lizza says began in earnest with a late summer round of golf has evolved into a relationship few would have predicted in the wake of the bitter Democratic primary fight of 2008, when now Secretary of State Hillary Clinton challenged Obama for the party's nomination. President Clinton has weighed in on the race, offering the Obama team strategic advice. He's also appeared at fundraisers, an even more tangible brand of support.

Obama has delivered fresh praise for Clinton's economic record, looking to ride a wave of mid-90s nostalgia.

"Nobody has a better grasp and understanding of the issues than this man," Obama said at a June fundraiser. And as the driving force behind 1996's welfare reform law, Clinton has been in a prime position to rebut what the Romney campaign has called its most effective attack -- the false claim that Obama has gutted the work requirement at the heart of the legislation.

One of the Romney welfare spots aimed squarely at the middle class featured images of a smiling Clinton signing welfare reform into law, with the Republican nominee implicitly aligning himself with the 42nd president -- positioning himself the true heir of the Clinton legacy.

It's the special brand of affection engendered by any figure sporting a 66% approval rating in a CNN/ORC International poll earlier this summer -- the highest of any living president

That ad was countered a few days before the Republican National Convention by an Obama economic spot featuring a direct endorsement from Clinton.

"President Obama has a plan to rebuild America from the ground up, investing in innovation, education and job training," Clinton says in the ad. "It only works if there is a strong middle class. That's what happened when I was president. We need to keep going with his plan."

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Some high-profile Democrats, including former Democratic National Committee Chairman Ed Rendell, have said the Romney welfare spots have been resonating, doing measurable damage to Obama's re-election effort. So Wednesday's speech isn't just some symbolic appearance. Nervous Democrats hope Clinton can stage a repeat of the magic he worked on the white, working-class voters who played a key part in his winning coalitions in two presidential elections.

"There isn't anybody on the planet who has a greater perspective on not just the last four years, but the last two decades, than Bill Clinton," Obama campaign senior adviser David Axelrod told the New York Times this summer, when Clinton's speech was first announced. "He can really articulate the choice that is before people."

Clinton's involvement hasn't just been for public display. Last year, the Obama campaign bounced between two separate and opposing anti-Romney narratives. One painted the former Massachusetts governor as a hypocritical flip-flopper, a political weakling without a core. The other tarred him as a right-wing ideologue, catering to the most conservative wing of his party.

Contradictory messaging isn't necessarily a deal-breaker in politics, but each storyline undermined the other, with an extended period of indecision prolonging the damage.

Then, as the New Hampshire primary neared, Clinton weighed in.

During a visit by senior Obama advisers to Clinton's offices in New York, Lizza said, Clinton said the second argument would be their best bet -- it would resonate with liberal donors and help keep swing voters from basing their vote on the wager a President Romney would return to the center.

The role of strategic sage is one Clinton filled on his wife Hillary Clinton's campaign last cycle. It's a role he might be able to reprise if she makes another run four years from now. But on Wednesday, he will make the case instead for the man who denied her the nomination.

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