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Sunday 20 Aug 2017 | 04:40 | SYDNEY
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Democrats: Four days in Charlotte

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10 September 2012 10:09

Going into the Democratic convention, the theme of much of the coverage was how Barack Obama needed Bill Clinton. Coming out of it, the main storyline was how Obama had been completely upstaged by him.

Clintonian Kryptonite has always been a hazardous material to handle. But the fact that the former president emerged as the superhero in Charlotte matters little. Score-carding convention speeches is the sport of pundits rather than the voting public. And the choice in November is, after all, between Obama and Romney, although delegates might have returned home rueing the 22nd Amendment, which established that presidents can serve only two terms (they might also regret the 'born in the USA' constitutional requirement that bars the impressive Jennifer Granholm from running for the White House in 2016, because she hails from over the border in Canada).

Clinton, who left office with the highest approval ratings of any president since World War II, is the most useful of guarantors. Charlotte also saw him at his triangulating best (would not 'Triangulator' be his Marvel comics moniker?). No modern era progressive politician has been more adept at fusing the American capitalist spirit with the country's communitarian ideals, and marrying ideas about individual responsibility with the necessary role of government.

No president of any stripe has been better at simplifying complicated policy questions, though his trick here is to respect the intelligence of his audience rather than to dumb himself down.

Even if Clinton cannot match the lyricism of Obama, he showed that the folksy can trump the flowery, especially when it comes to the unromantic task of winning re-election.

Obama was going to struggle, whatever the quality of his oratory. Had he delivered a sparkling speech, the Republicans would have argued he can dispense poetry but has problems with the cold grammar of government. A sub-par speech would prompt criticism that he cannot present an overwhelming argument for his re-election. In the event, the Obama speech-writing shop was apparently instructed to write an 'earthbound speech', precisely to avoid the charge of vacuous rhetoric.

What struck me, above all, was not so much what Obama said but his war-weary tone. It spoke of the debilitating grind of the modern-day presidency and the gridlock of Washington. For large portions of his speech, he addressed the convention with the cheerless air of a leader who knows that, even if he wins re-election and claims a decisive mandate, the checks and balances of the American system, combined with the hyper-partisanship of Capitol Hill, will conspire to make his second term a period of consolidation rather than restless reform. Missing from the speech was any bold new legislative agenda.

It says much about the obstructionism of modern-day US politics that the President was at his most passionate when he cast himself as the blocker: the leader who would prevent the Republicans from ditching Medicare or increasing university tuition fees.

Addressing foreign affairs, where he obviously enjoys more flexibility, Obama was stronger. Membership of 'The President's Club' lends him authority. It helps, too, that he has a saleable foreign policy success that makes for a snappy bumper sticker: 'Obama got Osama.' He sought to brand the Democrats as the party of national security, which has traditionally been a Republican boast. He portrayed Mitt Romney as both a neophyte and a Neanderthal whose thinking was stuck in the Cold War age. Needless to say, foreign affairs, barring some major international crisis, will have only a negligible impact on the race.

The conventions, by contrast, may prove to have been decisive. All the tracking polls show that Obama has increased his narrow lead, despite another month of lacklustre job figures. Romney therefore approaches the final fifty days of the campaign knowing he has never held a substantive lead in the polls. Nate Silver, the New Yorks Times' savvy number cruncher, notes:

If even at his high-water mark, he can only pull the race into a rough tie, what pitch can he come up with in October or November to suddenly put him over the top?

The candidate leading in the polls after the conventions traditionally goes on to win, although George W Bush came back from 4 points behind in 2000, the biggest post-conventions turnaround since 1968.
 
This week, Bill Clinton will campaign in Florida. But the polls as well as historical precedent suggest Obama might no longer need him.

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