By Richard Wolf, USA TODAY
CHARLOTTE - Twenty years after accepting the Democratic nomination for president at Madison Square Garden in New York, Bill Clinton returns to center stage Wednesday night in an effort to help - but not overshadow -President Obama.
It's a delicate dance: Both the former president and his eight years in office seem to get more popular with age. Clinton's 69% favorable rating in a new USA TODAY/Gallup Poll is his highest in the 136 times Gallup has measured it, even at the time of his inauguration in 1993. A month after he left office in 2001, it was 39%.
Perhaps more important, the period of peace, prosperity - and 23 million new jobs - over which Clinton presided hasn't been matched since. Democrats are betting that middle-class Americans will warm to those memories and the hope that Obama can replicate them.
So when the 66-year-old elder statesman nominates Obama - the man who defeated his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, for the party nod four years ago - it will mark both a nostalgic moment for Democrats and a reminder that things aren't going nearly as well today.
"It's a time for which Democrats feel quite proud," recalls former Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle, Clinton's ally from 1995-2000. "We think back to those days as the good old days, and he was the architect."
"Bringing Clinton in is an enormous risk," says former Republican House speaker Newt Gingrich, Clinton's chief counterpart from 1995-98, who compromised with him to balance budgets and overhaul welfare. "He was just a heck of a lot better president than Barack Obama. It will remind you how pathetically bad Obama has been."
Indeed, Clinton's seventh consecutive command performance at a Democratic convention will elicit comparisons with Obama - some favorable for the president, others not so much - as well as questions about how the nation's 42nd president can help the 44th win re-election.
The two men have had a strained relationship in the past, caused mostly by Obama's eclipse of Hillary Clinton in the 2008 election. But they appeared together in the White House briefing room in December 2010 and golfed together last September, bonding over policy issues along the way.
Clinton's rock star status is reflected in the decision to make him the featured speaker Wednesday, wedged between first lady Michelle Obama on Tuesday and the president on Thursday. By contrast, former president George W. Bush was absent last week from the Republican National Convention in Tampa.
Out of politics for 12 years, Clinton has seen his popularity rise along with his wife's, who polls at 66% as secretary of State and has not ruled out another presidential campaign in 2016. Obama has a 53% personable favorable rating and a 45% job approval rating.
As head of the Clinton Global Initiative and William J. Clinton Foundation, the ex-president has spent his post-presidency involved in issues such as international development while becoming a multimillionaire on the speaking circuit. He declined a USA TODAY interview request.
Seeking 'positive energy'
Wednesday's speech could be particularly important. Obama arrives here deadlocked with Mitt Romney, a situation Clinton didn't encounter during an easier re-election contest against Bob Dole in 1996. What Clinton has to say - and how he says it - could influence the outcome of the campaign.
"An uplifting, unifying message from Bill Clinton could be very helpful to Barack Obama at this point in time, because the country is cynical and disgusted and kind of tired," says Thea Lee, deputy chief of staff at the AFL-CIO. "A large part of what they're looking for is just the warmth of his personality and his charisma and his positive energy."
Obama can use more than nostalgia and positive energy. He needs to convince Americans that he can deliver even a fraction of the 23 million jobs created during the Clinton years. His administration has suffered a net loss of 300,000 jobs.
Clinton's job is to make that case and to contrast it with the Republican proposal for across-the-board tax cuts and deep domestic spending cuts. He is likely to criticize Romney for an ad - featuring Clinton - that accuses Obama of trying to ease welfare work rules.
"This election, to me, is about which candidate is more likely to return us to full employment," he says in a TV ad getting lots of air time. "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."
Though Democrats who have worked with both men say their economic goals are similar, they say the steep recession Obama inherited and deep differences with Republicans in Congress have prevented him from seeing better results. During 22 months of job growth since October 2010, 3.4 million jobs have been added.
Unlike Clinton, Obama "came into office with an immediate crisis, which then became a long-term crisis," says Elaine Kamarck, who ran the Clinton administration's "reinventing government" effort. "He didn't have the liberty that Clinton did to define his presidency."
Another difference: Though both Clinton and Obama lost their Democratic majorities in Congress after two years, Clinton was able to work with GOP leaders to overhaul welfare at the end of his first term and to produce a balanced budget at the start of his second term. Obama has faced a Tea Party-infused Republican leadership less willing to compromise.
To many Americans, the memories aren't always fond. Much like Obama, Clinton began his first term in 1993 with a partisan budget and health care plan. That was followed by a government shutdown and, in his second term, by his impeachment after the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Clinton's approval of GOP legislation easing restrictions on banks in 1999 may have paved the way for the financial crisis a decade later.
"Clearly, President Clinton gets the credit for that period, but he certainly put us through a rough time," recalls Bill Hoagland, the Senate Republicans' top budget staffer in the 1990s. "People looking back will set aside some of the faults of President Clinton, and they'll look back at the Clinton years as a time when economic growth eventually came about."
Clinton, unlike Obama, polls well across demographic groups. He's favored by 64% of men, 68% of independents, 63% of whites and 63% of those older than 65.
"He is a person who is credible with both swing voters and particularly with respect to white, working-class voters," says John Podesta, Clinton's last White House chief of staff. To those voters, Clinton can say, " 'I understand your lives, I know what you need. What Romney's selling isn't going to help you, and stick with Obama.' "
Clinton can make the policy case against Romney, whose proposals he likens to Bush's: lower taxes and less regulation.
"He can actually show that the two policy approaches that are being debated now are very similar" to the Clinton and Bush policies, says Chris Jennings, Clinton's health adviser in the White House. "Why wouldn't you want the one that ended up in success, rather than the one that ended up in failure?"
Look for Clinton to explain the difference between policies that favor the middle class and those that benefit the wealthy, Jennings says. "He makes the seemingly complex become common sense," he says. "I've seen politicians come and go now for better than 30 years, and there's no one that comes close to him."
The danger of Clinton
Using Clinton too much comes with risk, some Democrats say. He sometimes says the wrong thing, such as in June when he lauded Romney's business career at Bain Capital. His convention speech has not been vetted by the Obama campaign - only its broad themes.
He also could overshadow Obama - both in terms of policy results and personal charm. "The possibility that the strongest speech at the convention is delivered by Clinton is very real," says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.
Personal endorsements are worth only so much, says George Edwards, a presidential scholar at Texas A&M University. He notes that Clinton's support didn't help his wife win the Democratic nomination in 2008.
Even so, just being associated with the first Democratic president to be re-elected since Franklin Roosevelt is likely to help Obama, most Democrats and outside experts say.
"Clinton's second term was the last identifiable American high - peace and prosperity, we had an Internet boom, real incomes were going up, there was no rising enemy power on the horizon," says Steven Schier, a presidential historian at Carleton College whose recent book compares Clinton and Obama.
"Looks good in retrospect."