Analysis: Bill Clinton proves to be a powerful surrogate for President Obama

America’s most popular living ex-president tried Wednesday to summon up his rhetorical skills and persuasive power to help a struggling successor secure a second term.

Hoping to conjure the political magic that led him to win two comfortable election victories and rebound from sex scandal and impeachment, Bill Clinton told a raucous crowd of delegates in a Charlotte sports arena that the 2012 election was a choice between a “you’re-on-your-own, winner-take-all society” under Republican Mitt Romney or a “we’re-all-in-this-together society” under fellow Democrat Barack Obama.

Clearly relishing the return to partisan combat 12 years after leaving office, the 42nd president ridiculed Republican claims to economic policy expertise.

“In Tampa, the Republican argument against the president’s re-election was pretty simple: We left him a total mess, he hasn’t finished cleaning it up yet, so fire him and put us back in,” Clinton said.

The 66-year-0ld ex-president, his voice and body thinner with age, received raucous applause during his 48-minute speech for his cutting critique of the GOP ticket and “the far right that now controls their party.”

“We cannot afford to give the reins of government to someone who will double down on trickle down,” he argued.

Trying to contain the political damage caused by four years of economic damage, Clinton praised the Democratic incumbent as “a man who stopped the slide into depression and put us on the long road to recovery.”

After Clinton’s speech, Obama walked onto the stage and hugged the ex-president. The two men patted each other on the back before exiting the stage in tandem.

With Obama locked in a statistical tie with Romney in every recent poll, the president’s campaign strategists are hoping that Clinton’s speech will simultaneously energize the Democrats’ liberal core and persuade swing voters — particularly suburban women and blue-collar independents — to give the Democratic incumbent a second look.

“Bill Clinton remains a very potent weapon for the Democrats,” said Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas.

With the economy continuing to struggle, Clinton is a link to an era when a Democrat presided over soaring stock prices, rising family incomes, reduced income disparities and record budget surpluses.

“Obama needs him,” Rice University political science professor Paul Brace said. “He’s the successful Democratic president whose approval since leaving office has been and continues to be very high. They can rightly point to a time of I think of general prosperity and economic surplus.”

A longtime Republican strategist said the choice of Clinton to keynote the penultimate night of the Democratic convention was a calculated risk with major up-side potential.

“Bill Clinton is probably the single most valuable political surrogate in America today,” said Dan Schnur, now director of Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California. “He may be better equipped to reach out to swing voters than either presidential candidates themselves.”

But Schnur adds that Clinton’s involvement in Obama’s campaign is not without risk.

“If he can convince them that Obama is going to run his second term the same way that Clinton did then that’s a huge leg up for Obama’s reelection,” Schnur said. “But if voters’ don’t see a credible link between Obama and Clinton’s approaches to governance, then that’s a huge advantage for Romney.”

With public approval for the president’s economic stewardship sinking under 40 percent, Obama campaign officials believe they could benefit from Clinton’s speaking skills and his economic legacy.

In his speech, Clinton noted that 42 million jobs have been created under Democratic administrations over the past 52 years, while just 24 million were created in Republican presidencies. He tried to explain the country’s current jobless problem by saying that Obama “started with a much weaker economy than I had.”

“No one could have repaired all of the damage he found in just four years,” the ex-president declared.

But Rice’s Brace warned that Clinton doesn’t want to be too successful as a surrogate.

“People could walk away and say, ‘Obama is not Bill Clinton,’” he said.

Summer Ballentine of the Hearst Newspapers Washington bureau contributed to this report.

Richard Dunham