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Big Willie Style: Why Campaigning Like Clinton Won't Work for Obama
Well-connected and a master of the trail, ‘Slick Willie' has proven an asset to the Democrats and a good pairing with Obama, at least in terms of showmanship

Image: Flickr

In recent weeks, the duo of Barack Obama and Bill Clinton have been tag-teaming the campaign circuit with a trio of appearances at high profile New York fundraisers. The two have united in efforts to shore up funds and support from donors, as well as patch over what has been a rough couple weeks for Obama due to economic woes.

Clinton has been been on point during these appearances, and apart from a few gaffes over economic policy, has shown why he is fast becoming Obama’s top campaign surrogate in the lead up to the election. Well-connected and a master of the trail, ‘Slick Willie’ has proven an asset to the Democrats and a good pairing with Obama, at least in terms of showmanship. The hope of Obama’s advisors is that the same tactics that made Clinton the first Democrat since FDR to serve a second term, can work for their man too.

However, while it goes without saying that Clinton and Obama share the same political savvy and ability to work a room, the secret to Clinton’s re-election campaign isn’t one that Obama can replicate, at least not without turning back the clock. It comes down to a simple matter of time: Obama has been on the campaign trail for just a few months now, but when Clinton was elected, he never got off.

In Clinton’s tenure he made it a point to keep up appearances not only with the media and voters, but to shmooze his donors as well. His administration made sure to truly sell any piece of legislation he put through as thoroughly as possible to the American public. It was “The Permanent Campaign”, a term coined by journalist Sidney Blumenthal in the years before he would go on to be Clinton’s Senior Advisor. It garnered much flack from those on the right who criticized the President’s lack of governance, but it worked; Clinton won his second term by a 9 point landslide with notably high job approval ratings.

Obama’s time as commander in chief has been quite the opposite, and it reflects in recent gallup polls that show his job approval rating to be in hovering around 48 per cent; almost ten points below clinton during his 96 campaign, and the lowest of any President seeking a second term since Carter.

Far from a “Permanent Campaign”, the Obama administration shifted their focus to governance after their victory in the 2008 election, and resultantly saw public support falter. Despite managing to pass a number of groundbreaking pieces of legislation, the Obama administration made the critical mistake of underselling the importance of these bills to the American people, most notably the healthcare act, which the majority of Americans say they still don’t understand.

Obama also failed to keep up appearances with some of his major donors from 2008, losing backing in a public way from top hedge fund managers like Clifford Asness of AQR Capital and Dan Loeb of Third Point. Even after Obama directly told Loeb, Asness and a host of others that he would raise their taxes if elected, they contributed around 1.5 million to Obama in 2008. This time around that money is nowhere to be seen, and neither is support from the financial sector.

The President’s relationship with the media is notoriously prickly as well, and many a Washington journalist has felt the pains of dealing with the White House Press Office. Even at events that are supposed to be of a more lighthearted tone, like the White House Correspondent’s Dinner, Obama is known for making a B-line for the exit once his duties as host are over. This is almost the exact opposite of Clinton, who (perhaps a bit too much) loved to press the flesh.

It’s too late in the game for Obama to campaign the same way that Clinton did, but he does have advantages that his predecessor did not. One of them is that unlike Clinton, Obama’s personal favorability ratings are exceedingly high, with latest polls putting them around 70 per cent. Whereas voters see Obama as a good guy doing a poor job, they saw Clinton as a bit of a sleaze, but one who knew what he was doing.

In order to win the election, the Obama administration needs to worry less about how the commander-in-chief is seen as a person and focus on shifting public perception on how effective they are at governing. Much of this is tied to the economic recovery, which at this point is largely out of Obama’s hands, but there is still some things that can be done to change voter opinion. Having Clinton on the trail is certainly one of them, and while Obama can no longer campaign the way Bill did, he can certainly benefit from his presence.

Hopefully for Obama that presence resonates most with the working class whites that were a staple of Clinton’s electorate, a demographic that Obama will need a portion of to win this november, and one that has largely opposed him. Bill Clinton may even be a help to Obama with black voters, a group that polling has shown favors “the first black President” even higher than the actual first black President. 


Nick Robins-Early is a freelance journalist currently based in Washington, D.C. Follow him @nickrobinsearly.

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