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Obama turns to Bill Clinton, the old pro, to help win reelection

President Obama is turning to Bill Clinton, his former foe, for a big lift at the Democratic convention in Charlotte, N.C.

The ex-president on Wednesday night will formally place Obama’s name into nomination with a speech aimed at reminding the American electorate that the policies Obama is pursuing are the ones that led to the nation’s longest period of economic expansion, during the 1990s.

Obama’s selection of Clinton for such a high-profile address is the latest evidence, for those who still need it, that the former president’s stinging criticism of Obama in 2008 and his occasional off-message comments in the years since are water under the bridge.

It also demonstrates that 20 years after his election to the presidency, Clinton remains the Democratic Party’s most effective economic messenger.

“President Clinton has a remarkable ability to explain things. He doesn’t talk down to people and he doesn’t talk over their heads,” said Paul Begala, a former adviser and longtime Clinton confidant. “His ability to explain these things is second to none.”

Clinton’s plainspoken style is a contrast to the lofty oratory that Americans have come to expect from Obama.

A prime-time speaking slot for Clinton has become as standard at Democratic conventions as the balloons and confetti. He has delivered an evening address every four years for nearly a quarter-century, and only in 1988 — when Clinton infamously droned on far too long — has his speech earned anything less than rave reviews.

Clinton gave lengthy talks in support of Vice President Gore in 2000 and Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) in 2004. His much-anticipated speech backing Obama in 2008 came just months after the Illinois senator’s bitter Democratic primary fight with then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), during which Bill Clinton likened Obama’s candidacy to “a fairytale” and dismissed his success in South Carolina as similar to that of the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s long-shot campaign in 1988.

The crux of Clinton’s speech in 2008 boiled down to 11 words: “Barack Obama is ready to be president of the United States.”

In the years since, Clinton has given Obama both help and heartburn. He served as a crucial surrogate in late 2010 as the president sought to sell the deal he struck with Republicans to extend the George W. Bush-era tax rates. But he’s also stepped on Obama’s campaign message from time to time, such as when he credited Mitt Romney for a “sterling” business career and seemed to suggest that the full slate of Bush tax cuts should again be extended.

“There’s no one better than President Clinton to lay out the clear choice Americans face in this election, between moving forward with President Obama or falling backward with Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, who support the same failed policies that led to the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression,” Obama campaign spokesman Adam Fetcher said.

The Obama campaign would not preview Clinton’s address in Charlotte beyond pointing to a 30-second ad the former president cut for Obama, which was released last month. 

“This election, to me, is about which candidate is more likely to return us to full employment. This is a clear choice,” Clinton says, speaking directly to the camera. “The Republican plan is to cut more taxes on upper-income people and go back to deregulation. That’s what got us in trouble in the first place. President Obama has a plan to rebuild America from the ground up, investing in innovation, education and job training. 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.”

A Clinton spokesman did not return requests for comment.

Clinton also is likely to include some lavish praise for his wife, who is not appearing at the convention in deference to her non-political position as secretary of State. There is a lot of speculation that Hillary Clinton will run again in 2016, though she has said she will not.

If Clinton’s speech on Wednesday follows the pattern of his recent convention addresses, it will include an extended recitation of his own economic record and the rosier times of the 1990s. 

Clinton “presided over the greatest boom in world history, certainly in American history,” Begala said. “People remember that, and they like it.”

In a poll released last month by The Wall Street Journal and NBC News, 57 percent of registered voters had a favorable opinion of Clinton — a higher rating than they gave any of the four men on the 2012 national ticket.

For the Obama campaign, the biggest risk could be that Clinton unwittingly leads viewers to draw an unfavorable comparison between himself and Obama, who has served through three and a half years of high unemployment and an uneven economic recovery.

Begala said Clinton is well-positioned to explain the circumstances to voters, and, more broadly, to articulate the “common set of ideas” that worked in the 1990s and are needed again today.

“I have been involved, I guarantee you, in more than a thousand Bill Clinton speeches, and very few of them have failed,” said Begala, who emphasized he was not speaking for Clinton nor working with the Obama campaign. “I doubt [the Obama team is] worried, or they wouldn’t have asked him to give the speech. I think President Clinton knows what he’s doing here. He’s getting pretty good at this game.”