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President Obama needs Bill Clinton for credibility

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President Barack Obama listens as former President Bill Clinton speaks.

President Barack Obama listens as former President Bill Clinton speaks.

Associated Press

There's something delicious about Bill Clinton being asked to serve as the chief character witness for Barack Obama at the Democratic National Convention. Clinton, let's recall, was a very messy president. His meetings didn't start on time; his speeches didn't end on time. His biggest legislative project, health care reform, never passed (unlike Obama's). He made compromises with Republicans; he made Democratic liberals furious. He even got impeached (and ultimately acquitted) over sexual peccadilloes, though nobody seems to remember the details now.

But Obama wasn't asking Clinton to testify about his personal character. The president needs Clinton to vouch for his political character — to assure voters, especially white middle-class voters, that Obama feels their pain, knows how to do the job and deserves another four years.

During the primary campaign four years ago, Obama dismissed the Clintons, husband and wife, as exemplars of a discredited old politics — as "calculating" Democrats who weren't bold enough to aim high.

Now Obama wishes he had more of what the Clintons had: the gift, honed in inhospitable Arkansas, of framing Democratic ideas in forms that wary middle-of-the-road voters can embrace. Obama, who launched his career in liberal Chicago and faced most of his early challenges from the left, still doesn't always have the hang of it.

Obama's decision to ask Clinton to be the one to officially nominate him — the first time a president has asked one of his predecessors to do that — makes that official. It was a direct personal request; aides say Obama telephoned Clinton to make the ask several weeks ago. Why? Because Clinton still has the touch.

Here, for example, is how Clinton defended the Obama economic record at a Democratic fundraiser in Virginia in April: "So if somebody says, 'Well, but I don't feel all that great yet,' or 'Not everything is back yet,' or 'It's still kind of slow yet,' you just remind them we've gotten 4 million jobs since the recession bottomed out; the ones we lost in the crash have been restored — thanks to the stimulus, which kept unemployment 11/2 to 2 points lower than it would have been; thanks to his restructuring of the American automobile industry, which saved a million and a half jobs and created 84,000 more."

Last weekend, Obama aides were still struggling to find an answer to the predictable question: Are you better off now than you were four years ago? Clinton had his answer ready long before the question was asked.

Friends report that the former president has been rooting for Obama all along but has been mystified at the incumbent's inability to sell his policies — his failure, for example, to make sure people knew that his much-derided stimulus package included a gigantic middle-class tax cut.

Clinton is to the Democrats as Ronald Reagan is to Republicans: the president they're all nostalgic for.

Except for one very important difference: Most Democrats at this convention are nostalgic for Clinton, not for Clintonism. Reagan's party embraced his conservatism as its core ideology and ran with it, pushing it far beyond what Reagan himself envisioned. Clinton's party has edged away from his "New Democratic" centrism and moved a step back toward its old-school liberalism. The Democratic Leadership Council, the centrist organization Clinton helped build, has disbanded. The "blue dog" Democrats, members of Congress who fought for fiscal discipline and business-friendly policies, are mostly extinct. For many delegates in Charlotte, N.C., the most eagerly anticipated speaker isn't Bill Clinton; it's Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts liberal who's running for Senate.

But faithful Democrats still love Clinton, even if many of them think his politics are too accommodating to the 1 percent. They find his politics tame.

There were substantive differences between Obama and Clinton in 2008, and some of them persist. They pop into the open once in a while, whenever Clinton feels strongly enough to deliver a public dissent. He did it in May, when he criticized the Obama campaign for attacking Mitt Romney's record as a businessman, and again in June, when he called for extending current tax rates instead of raising taxes on the wealthy.

But those distinctions didn't surface Wednesday night. For Clinton, he gets to be kingmaker, the man who might make a struggling candidate electable. For voters old enough to remember the Clinton administration, it was a moment of nostalgia; for those too young (voters under 34 never saw Bill Clinton's name on a ballot), a chance to see what they missed.

Doyle McManus is a columnist for The Los Angeles Times. Readers may send him email at doyle.mcmanus@latimes.com.