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Washington - Bill Clinton had only been an ex-president for a few hours when he told a farewell rally: “I left the White House, but I’m still here.”
He was as good as his word.
Clinton became the most politically active former US leader of modern times, and will lend his two-term legacy to President Barack Obama’s re-election fight with a star turn on Wednesday at the Democratic National Convention.
The 42nd president’s 1993-2001 White House years were marred by scandal, bitter duels with Republicans and the shame of impeachment.
But after the Great Recession, his presidency seems a golden age of peace and middle class prosperity.
Clinton is now as popular as the day he was inaugurated: 66 percent of Americans approved of him in a recent CNN poll.
That makes him a potent ally for Obama, despite the complex relationship between Clinton and the man who thwarted his wife’s dreams of becoming America’s first woman president.
Clinton, who often infuriated Americans but has retained their affection, is also masterful at courting critical audiences Obama struggles to reach.
His appearance in Charlotte, North Carolina, will help encapsulate the choice before Americans – a task at which even Republicans agree Clinton is supreme.
Clinton, at 66, is only seven months older than Mitt Romney, and a powerful counter to the Republican’s own convention performance, when he posed as a sorrowful elder declaring the younger Obama had not made the grade.
“[Obama] did the best he could with a lousy hand,” Clinton said at a fund-raiser for Obama in June.
Clinton will be at centre stage 20 years after his own nominating address in New York, which stressed his modest beginnings in Hope, Arkansas. His argument then, as now: Republicans cast the middle class adrift.
Phil Singer, a senior strategist on Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign, said the former president brings great value.
“His performance as president gives him instant credibility on the economy,” Singer said.
“Over the 12 years since Clinton has left office, he has carved out an important place for himself in American life and is now universally acclaimed, even by those who might once have disliked him.”
Clinton, mainly active now in his global humanitarian foundation, is more than a party grey beard on a ceremonial tour.
“Clinton is different… he is the fairly young former president – he must be polling really high because he is used in Romney ads,” said Dan Shea, a political scientist at Colby College.
Romney’s campaign has leveraged Clinton’s popularity by contrasting the prosperity of the 1990s with Obama’s America, and accuses the president of rolling back his predecessor’s welfare reform.
“President Clinton has a record that President Obama simply cannot live up to,” said Romney spokesman Ryan Williams. “Instead of running on his own abysmal record, Barack Obama is shamelessly trying to run on the record of his predecessor.”
The Clinton-Obama relationship has rarely been easy.
Candidate Obama angered Clinton aides when he said he wanted to be a transformative president like Ronald Reagan, in an apparent slap at the only Democrat to win two terms since World War II.
But Obama’s pick of Hillary Clinton as secretary of state and the synergy between Clinton’s legacy and Obama’s economic message brought them closer.
Stylistically, Obama and Clinton are contrasts – Clinton breathes politics while Obama seems to disdain it.
When Obama rouses a crowd, its members feel an almost religious sense of being part of a movement greater than themselves. Everyone in a Clinton crowd feels he is addressing them alone.
Obama seeks a soaring pitch of emotion. Clinton peers over his spectacles and can frame an election in a couple of words.
But Clinton also brings risk: the downside of his legendary empathy can be self-indulgence, and Romney will pounce on any signs the ex-president is promoting himself and not Obama.
Clinton also sometimes seems a little off the pace of Twitter-age politics: he once praised Romney’s business record, contradicting Obama’s message.
Perhaps Clinton may choose to intertwine his own legacy with Obama’s by reprising a line from his 1992 speech that contains a sentiment central to both of their political identities: “I still believe in a place called Hope.” – Sapa-AFP