President Obama is turning to one of his most lethal political weapons — former President Clinton — as he tries to take advantage of some Romney missteps this week by having Mr. Clinton make the case for his re-election in some ways better than the president can himself.
Mr. Clinton will hit the Sunday talk show circuit for Mr. Obama, appearing on CBS’ “Face the Nation” to drive home his support for the president’s economic plan and build on the outpouring of enthusiasm after his 49-minute convention speech two weeks ago.
Mr. Clinton’s high-profile TV appearance less than 50 days before Election Day follows his solo stumping in Miami and Orlando, Fla. the week after his rousing endorsement of Mr. Obama in a speech even Mr. Romney said helped “elevate” the Democratic convention.
In the coming weeks, Mr. Clinton also is expected to take the stage in such battlegrounds as Virginia, Ohio and Iowa, and he stars in an advertisement the campaign launched in late August that features his voice alone.
Team Obama also has dispatched the former president to help rake in cash for the campaign and assist Priorities USA Action — the struggling Obama super PAC — in raising money.
At 66, Mr. Clinton’s extensive campaign surrogate role this year is as improbable as it is unprecedented in modern politics, especially considering his searing criticism of Mr. Obama during Hillary Rodham Clinton’s unsuccessful 2008 primary campaign against him.
Joel Goldstein, a presidential scholar and law professor at St. Louis University, calls Mr. Clinton the greatest former president surrogate in a long time, possibly in a century.
“Bill Clinton is playing a historic role as a surrogate for President Obama,” Mr. Goldstein said. “We have not before had a former president who was young enough, popular enough, articulate enough and motivated enough to play the role in helping a successor as President Clinton is.”
The last time a former or outgoing president played a serious role on the campaign trail was in 1908, when Theodore Roosevelt campaigned for William Howard Taft. Ronald Reagan, who enjoyed high approval ratings upon leaving office, campaigned on behalf of George H.W. Bush but not to the same extent as Mr. Clinton’s role now.
In 2000, Al Gore didn’t want to be anywhere near Mr. Clinton just two years after the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke, but political observers say keeping him in a corner could have cost Mr. Gore the White House because the presidential contest was so close that year.
And in 2004, Mr. Clinton was still in recovery-mode after undergoing heart surgery in September and only campaigned for Sen. John F. Kerry for president in a limited role.
While still widely popular across age groups and income-levels, Mr. Clinton’s high-octane advocacy for Mr. Obama this year isn’t without its risks and inevitably highlights the differences in their personalities, as well as their economic records.
At the Democratic convention, Mr. Clinton addressed criticism that Mr. Obama is too cool and analytical and has a hard time connecting with average Americans.
“This is a man who is cool on the outside, but who burns for America on the inside,” he said to thunderous applause from an audience that seemed eager to be charmed.
Mr. Clinton is such an effective surrogate, Mr. Obama joked afterward, that he could serve as “secretary of explaining stuff.”
The evolution of Mr. Clinton’s relationship with Mr. Obama, however, gives Republicans an opening to call Mr. Obama’s Bubba bromance a politically expedient charade.
The day after Mr. Clinton’s speech, the Romney campaign released a TV ad recalling Mr. Clinton labeling Mr. Obama a fraud.
“As the economy gets worse, Barack Obama calls on Bill Clinton to help his failing campaign,” a narrator says in the ad. “He’s a good soldier helping his party’s president. The ad then cuts to a clip of Mr. Clinton during the 2008 primaries, when he said of Mr. Obama, “Give me a break. This whole thing is the biggest fairy tale I’ve ever seen.”
When it comes to the economy, the Obama campaign argues that Mr. Clinton presided over the longest period of expansion by pursuing many of the same policies Mr. Obama espouses.
But to Republicans who remember working with Mr. Clinton on balancing the budget and welfare reform, the comparison doesn’t pass the laugh test. Many liberal Democrats also view Mr. Obama’s and Mr. Clinton’s economic policies as wildly different.
Richard Parker, an economist and Harvard professor who was a classmate of Mr. Clinton’s at Oxford, said Mr. Clinton’s tenure marked a departure from traditional liberal alliances and a break from the standard Democratic goal of expanding the social safety net associated with a string of Democratic presidents in the past.
“[Clinton] was generally identified as a neo-Democrat who was more friendly to business and limited government,” Mr. Parker said. “And the way he triangulated his Democratic colleagues in the Congress when he ran for a second term — there was a lot of resentment over that.”
Mr. Parker also said Mr. Clinton’s insertion into the campaign dredges up the “shame and embarrassment” of the Monica Lewinsky scandal when Democrats were forced to defend his behavior and takes issue with how he has spent his time since leaving office.
“He’s spending most of his time on Wall Street rather than Harlem, where his office is and he said he was going to be so focused on revitalizing,” Mr. Parker said.