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Sunday 9 September 2012

Obama needs a masterclass from Willie

To win, the current Democratic president needs to learn from his predecessor, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards

ONE blinding truth emerged from the Democratic Convention. If Bill Clinton were running for president, he would easily win.

Sure, his speech in support of Mr Obama was a bit long, but there was enough of the old magic emanating from the shameless charmer to make people nostalgic for a leader who liked people, understood politics, seemed to know what he was doing and radiated optimism. Americans love happy warriors, and Slick Willie is one of the happiest. It's not a role that fits Barack Obama well, not least because he often gives the impression he doesn't really enjoy being president.

Mr Obama's speech was a bit of a disappointment to the faithful. People have become used to the rhetoric and cadences that so excited them in 2008 and worry that their president seems unsure about the future. As New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd put it, Mr Obama is "a cold shower to Bill's warm bath".

I am no fan of Ms Dowd's, who is hampered by her ignorance of, and contempt for, middle America and her loathing of Republicans, but she can be interesting on the personalities of those towards whose politics she is sympathetic. She wrote last week about Mr Obama's conflicted attitude even after his first political speech -- "his elation at his ability to rouse with words and disdain at how easy it was". Like Mr Clinton, Mr Obama didn't know his father, but "while the disciplined Barry became self-reliant, with little patience for neediness or insincerity, the undisciplined Bill became self-indulgent, a maw of need and maestro of faux sincerity."

Mr Clinton's neediness makes him reach out to anyone and everyone: Mr Obama likes few people and prefers his own company to that of anyone other than his family. This is at the root of his problems as president. He's a clever, eloquent, charismatic academic who believes himself a saviour: Mr Clinton was as brilliant a politician as he was a student. When faced with the need to wheel and deal, Mr Clinton joyfully shouts "Bring it on" but Mr Obama's aristocratic nose wrinkles at the very idea. Aloof and arrogant, he isn't even friendly with his own party, let alone being capable of forging the bipartisan links that enriched Mr Clinton's presidency.

It was telling that Mr Obama stooped to beg Mr Clinton's help. For most of his presidency, he had ignored him, and Bill was hassling Hillary to stand against her boss for the nomination. But offered a starring role, and still hoping to make it back to the White House as First Husband, Bill didn't hesitate. He praised Mr Obama, even if he did so by conjuring up nostalgia for the Clinton years.

Like Ann Romney, Michelle Obama gave a brilliant speech (apart from that stomach-churning phrase about being "Mom-in-Chief") and came across as far more likeable than her husband. Indeed, she has an approval rating way ahead of his: 66 per cent to his mid-to-high 40s. This rather undermines those who are determined to paint Obama-denigrators as bigots.

The whole race issue has become an increasingly poisonous element in what is already such a worryingly polarised election campaign. While there are, of course, white people who would never vote for a black, they're a tiny minority. Most Republicans are bitterly insulted by the racist tag -- hence when Herman Cain had his moment in the sun, they delighted in such bumper stickers as "Cain 50 per cent more black, 100 per cent more American". Amongst themselves, they point out that African-Americans don't get called racist even though more than 90 per cent of them back Obama. If you want to understand how they feel, have a look at 'Bob is a Racist' on YouTube.

Republicans have been moving right and Democrats left since Mr Clinton took office in 1993. The divisions have now been widened by the two conventions, which had little in common except processions of politicians competing to claim the most disadvantaged background. Republicans talked mostly of jobs and fiscal and individual responsibility: Democrats emoted about rights and pledged support for abortion on demand and gay marriage. Angrily partisan journalists and fact-checkers are helping shrink the already narrow middle ground.

With Mr Obama ahead today by 48 to 45 per cent, a key question for both parties is how to get the core vote out. Will the so-far undecided (estimated at 4 -- 7 per cent) watch the debates? Can Mitt Romney project enough of a sense of competence to compensate for his lack of personality? And, above all, what arguments will the candidates find to appeal to the electorates of the swing states -- Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Virginia?

Most of the pundits expect Mr Obama to win by a short head, but to do so he'll need to gallop faster on the home straight. He could do with a masterclass from William Jefferson Clinton.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards