by Jules Witcover

It was no surprise that it fell to former President Bill Clinton to respond to the Republican taunt in Tampa that the country is worse off now than when Barack Obama took over four years ago.

That charge was a centerpiece of the GOP convention, voiced by vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan and rousing the faithful to cheers. Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley of Maryland, when asked on one of the Sunday television interview shows whether the country was really better off, artlessly first said, "No," before going on to defend Obama's efforts for economic recovery.

But that "No" was enough to inspire the Republican strategists to dust off Ronald Reagan's 1980 debate killer line against Jimmy Carter's dismal four presidential years, and hurl it against Obama's first term. Amid obvious public disappointment with the lingering unemployment rate north of 8 percent, it made political sense to resurrect the "are you better off" question and pose it to the Democrats again.

It inspired Clinton, the last president to come in with a budget surplus, to remind his own faithful, and independents beyond via television, of a little political history. He complied by noting how his Republican successor in the White House had squandered that surplus and in the process left Americans worse off after eight years in power.

It was an easy pivot for Clinton to observe that Obama had been given a huge economic hole out of which he tried to dig himself in his first four years. And that it was Republican obstructionism in Congress that had thwarted him at every turn. Even so, Clinton argued, there could be no doubt that Americans are indeed better off today than they were four years ago.

With his classic cajolery, Clinton observed that the Republicans in Tampa offered a "pretty simple" argument against Obama: "We left him a total mess, he hasn't cleaned it up fast enough, so fire him and put us back in." Obama himself had been making the same lament for a long time, but coming from Clinton it didn't sound quite so defensive.

The former president went on cite the congressional Republican obstructionism, noting that even Clinton himself, no object of GOP affection, was able to deal with a somewhat different brand of party opposition to make progress in his otherwise storm-tossed presidency. But what Obama has been facing, he said, was a different order, with the declared Republican modus operandi seeking to make him a one-term president.

For all that, Clinton argued, Obama has persevered, "committed to constructive cooperation" that could pay off in a second term backed by the voters in November. Never mind that Obama's dogged attempts to do business with the Republican leadership has been, and continues to be, grounds for relentless griping from liberal Democrats.

The former president's willingness to field the "are you better off" question, and to run unabashedly with it with a positive response, was a refreshing hint to Obama himself to make more of his efforts to avoid the fiscal precipice than he has done to date. Always with an eye on the electoral map, Clinton took note of 250,000 added auto manufacturing jobs resulting from the bailout that Mitt Romney opposed. "Are you listening in Michigan and Ohio?" he asked folks in the two electoral-vote rich states in the heart of the car-making Midwest.

Bill Clinton has not been famous for tooting other politicians' horns at his own expense, but he noted: "Obama started with a much weaker economy than I did. No president, not me, not any of my predecessors, no one could have fully repaired all the damage that he found in just four years."

As Clinton came riding to the rescue, it was clear that, as one who had worked hard and sometimes bitterly to beat Obama in his 2008 primary with Hillary Clinton, he was relishing the spotlight once more. And he was giving the Charlotte crowd and the television audience the full Bill Clinton. He has always been a tough act to follow, and he left Obama with a challenge to top him in his own acceptance speech.










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Bill Clinton Delivers | Politics

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