WASHINGTON — The irony behind the continuing tension between Barack Obama's supporters and the Clinton family this week is that the Obama campaign has followed almost step for step the map that Bill Clinton laid out at his highly successful 1992 convention in New York City.
Clinton's overriding goal then was to erase the perception of him as a cosseted elitist garlanded at Yale and Oxford and to convince skeptical middle-class families that he would defend their interests because he had walked in their shoes on his long journey from a "place called Hope."
Like Clinton in 1992, Obama wants those working families to believe he will defend the middle class because he is a product of it. That represents the fundamental gamble of this convention, because it's not clear that those shoes will fit Obama as well as they did Bill Clinton.
In most respects this has been an effective and historic week for Democrats. Long before Obama accepted the nomination Thursday night, the Monday night appearance of his wife Michelle -- and even more so the powerful video recounting the sacrifices her father made for her family even after being stricken with multiple sclerosis -- marked a cultural milestone in American life.
We have seen such stories of parents sacrificing for their children before at political conventions. We have just never seen it about an African-American family. The power of that moment was framed with silent eloquence by the television shots of older African-American women weeping as Michelle Obama and her mother wove their family's story into the American experience.
History may remember this week more in that context -- as a landmark in enlarging our definition of the American family -- than for any political argument that has been raised here. But in the near term, the convention's significance is to clarify the arguments Obama is hoping will shape the general election. On that front the convention shows the Democrats placing a bet that may be riskier than it now seems.
Video: M. Obama: ‘Isn’t that the great American story?' The Obama campaign has worked hardest this week to frame this election as a referendum on who is on your side. They have portrayed presumptive GOP nominee John McCain as a man so oblivious to middle-class struggles that he can't even remember how many homes he owns -- and Obama and running-mate Joe Biden, the "scrappy kid from Scranton," as a ticket that will defend the middle-class because they embody it.
Most Democratic strategists milling through Denver this week have cheered this approach as a logical response to both the widespread economic anxiety in the electorate and the McCain campaign's withering drive to portray Obama as a pampered celebrity. The focus on modest roots is also an understandable effort to respond to Obama's continued struggles among white working-class voters.
But it's not clear that Obama ultimately will be credible as a working-class hero. Obama may have overcome challenges on his rise, but he now projects the easy confidence with command of all the smart young men and women who have ascended in America's credentials-based meritocracy. Bill Clinton, with all of his unruly passions, never seemed very far from his hardscrabble past. It's more difficult to imagine Obama -- so disciplined and imperially slim -- wolfing down a Big Mac, much less owning a pick-up with AstroTurf in the back.
It didn't receive nearly as much attention, but a potentially more sustainable theme for the fall campaign was introduced by keynote speaker Mark Warner and by Bill Clinton himself. Warner, in a speech whose sharp arguments were dulled by leaden delivery, argued that America was living through a period of accelerating change at home and abroad and asked voters to judge whether Obama or McCain is better prepared to help the nation adapt to and prosper from those changes. Clinton made a similar case when, alone among the major speakers, he explicitly argued that Obama's mixed-race background provided him "a unique capacity to lead our increasingly diverse nation and to restore our leadership in an ever more interdependent world."
For now, as Obama's confident but controlled acceptance speech Thursday night demonstrated again, his campaign has placed its biggest chips on re-creating something like the Clinton 1992 message. But a more relevant precedent for Obama may be the arguments Clinton used so devastatingly against Bob Dole, his much older opponent, in 1996. Before November, Obama may find he needs to stop trying to convince Americans he still believes "in a place called Honolulu" and to worry more about convincing them that he can build his own bridge to the future.
Copyright 2012 by National Journal Group Inc.