Sat, Sep 08, 2012 - Page 9 News List

Bill Clinton and the ex-president conundrum

Obama invited the popular former president to nominate him at the Democratic convention, with an eye on the hard-to-reach sector: white male voters

By Michael Oreskes  /  AP, CHARLOTTE, North Carolina

Illustration: Kevin Sheu

Every political party has had leaders it would like to exalt and leaders it would like to forget. Former US president Bill Clinton has managed to be both.

He is the closest thing US politics has to a rock star, and he has sometimes behaved like one.

Luckily for US President Barack Obama, Clinton today is about as popular as a political figure can be. And he is popular with exactly the voters that Obama and the rest of the Democratic Party have a hard time reaching — which is to say, white people.

That is why even though they have not always been close, Obama invited Clinton to nominate him in prime time on Wednesday evening — the first former president to do that.

It is an extraordinary moment in the annals of presidential politics. Ex-presidents are sometimes useful for shows of party unity or reminders of good times. Richard Nixon did convince former US president Ike Eisenhower to endorse him just before the contentious 1968 convention, according to presidential historian Michael Beschloss. However, like the old soldier that Ike was, most ex-presidents have generally faded away.

They don’t want me around, Harry Truman once said. Al Gore, running for president in 2000, would not take Clinton’s help, which in retrospect looks like a big mistake. Jimmy Carter has been described as the nation’s best ex-president, but he will not be a big factor in the Obama campaign because his 1980 defeat by Ronald Reagan is too reminiscent of the present economic and political dynamic. And George W. Bush was nowhere to be seen at his party convention last week.

“After the White House,” said Franklin Pierce, the 14th president, “what is there to do but drink?”

But it isn’t history Obama is trying to change by bringing in Clinton. It is votes — white guy votes in particular.

The numbers tell a story. Obama was viewed favorably by 43 percent of white men in an AP-GfK poll last month. It is a key reason the US presidential race is so close this year. Overall, Republican challenger Mitt Romney beat Obama 54 to 39 percent among white voters in that poll.

White voters make up a bit more than 70 percent of the electorate in recent presidential years, according to exit polls. Obama doesn’t have to win among white voters to win the election, but he does have to keep Romney from building up such a lead that he can’t make up the difference by winning among blacks, Hispanics and perhaps even women.

Enter Clinton, who, at a year older than Romney, can’t really be the Comeback Kid anymore. However, 12 years out of office, he is viewed favorably by 63 percent of white men, according to a Gallup Poll in July.

He took his party and his country on a roller-coaster ride with sex scandals and an impeachment trial. However, looking back now, folks don’t see scandal, said Richard Harpootlian, they see what happens to the economy when you give a Democratic president two terms.

Harpootlian is a Democrat from South Carolina, a place where being a Democrat takes a special skill.

“He resonates with southern white folks dramatically,” Harpootlian said. “What they want to know is who is going to put groceries and grits on the table.”

Turns out, that is what the whole country wants to know now.

Clinton, the man from Hope, Arkansas, is now Obama’s chief messenger of hope that the economy will get better under Obama in a second term, as it did under Clinton, and that trusting the Republicans again is a mistake.

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