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Obama's four challenges

Image: Bill Clinton, Barack Obama
President Barack Obama stands with Former President Bill Clinton after Clintons' address to the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., on Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2012. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster) Carolyn Kaster / AP
/ Source: NBC News

After Michelle Obama’s remarks on Tuesday and Bill Clinton’s on Wednesday, we now come to President Obama’s acceptance speech, which he’ll deliver exactly two months before Election Day. Just like we did a week ago for Mitt Romney, we look at the four challenges Obama has going into tonight’s address after 10:00 pm ET. One, he needs to convince viewers that his policies are better than Romney’s to improve the economy. (While Bill Clinton made this case last night, the August NBC/WSJ poll found Romney with a six-point advantage over Obama on having good ideas to fix the economy.) Two, he needs to describe how his re-election would truly break the partisan “fever” in Washington and would be different than his first four years in office. (The same NBC/WSJ poll had Romney with a six-point edge on changing business as usual in DC.) Three, Obama needs to lay out what he could possibly achieve in a second term, and maybe even introduce a new idea. And four, as we wrote earlier this week, he needs to rekindle that enthusiasm and excitement from four years ago -- something made tougher by the move from Bank of America Stadium to the arena (though TV viewers won’t really notice the difference).

*** Clinton comes to Obama’s defense: It was just 12 years ago when Al Gore, with pretty good reason, distanced himself from Bill Clinton in the 2000 presidential election. Four years ago, Barack Obama was trying to turn the page on the Clintons and Bushes. But fast-forward to last night, when Obama arranged his convention so Americans could see him hugging Clinton. National Journal’s Fournier might have summed up Clinton’s speech the best: He did the dirty work for Obama. “Clinton branded the GOP as extremist and obstructionist and hateful… And he took the central question of Mitt Romney's campaign – ‘Are you better off than you were four years ago’ -- and turned it on its head.” Here’s what Clinton said: "No president -- not me or anyone before me -- no one could have fully repaired all the damage that he found in just four years," Clinton said of the economy. But conditions are improving, and if you'll renew the president's contract you will feel it." And as Fournier adds, Clinton’s look in the past last night allows Obama to focus his speech tonight on the future.

*** I come to praise Bush, not bury him: The speech was classic Clinton -- very smart and very undisciplined -- but it was maybe less of a speech and more of a story by your favorite uncle from the South. (Was there a “g” Clinton didn’t drop last night?) And one of the more striking stories that Clinton told, at least as it might relate to political independents, was his praise of past Republican presidents, including George W. Bush. In fact, outside of Jeb, we don’t think we heard kinder words in Tampa for George W. Bush than we heard from Clinton last night. And that praise then made this critique more effective. “I never learned to hate [Republicans] the way the far right that now controls their party seems to hate President Obama and the Democrats.” For veterans of the partisan wars of the late ‘90s, it’s amazing that of all people, Bill Clinton, has become the Democratic Party’s best spokesperson to independents.

*** The danger of elevating Clinton: Clinton’s speech last night epitomized the risk the Romney campaign took when it elevated Clinton, first highlighting the former Democratic president’s comments on private equity and Bain Capital and then using Clinton in its TV ads hitting Obama on welfare. But as we’ve written before, there’s danger when you elevate someone who isn’t supporting your candidacy --you make that person seem like a fair arbiter in the contest and someone whose words carry extra weight. (Greg Sargent writes that senior Dems think Clinton “is seen by genuine undecided and swing voters as a kind of ‘referee’ figure.”) So in addition to Clinton’s defense of the past 3 ½ years and his critique of the current Republican Party, he also used his speech to play the role of fact-checker. He pointed out that modern Democratic presidents have created twice the jobs that GOP presidents had; he said that both the welfare and Medicare attacks on Obama aren’t accurate; and he stole a favorite talking point of Paul Ryan’s (“math”) and turned it against the GOP, arguing that the “arithmetic” in Romney’s budget math doesn’t add up.

*** A day full of headaches for the Democrats: If Tuesday couldn't have been scripted better for Democrats and the Obama campaign, then Wednesday morning/afternoon could have created more headaches for the party. First, citing the weather, they decided to move tonight’s speech from Bank of America Stadium to the indoor confines of Time Warner Cable Arena. Next, after criticism from the right (and even within their own party), they did damage control by reinstating the language on Jerusalem being the capital of Israel, as well as the word “God-given,” back into their platform. (So now Republicans can joke, “Democrats were against God before they were for God.”) And when the convention tried to reinstate the language, they received boos from some of the delegates. Just ouch. That’s why Clinton’s speech was so important last night. After the very rocky start, Clinton ensured the evening ended on a high note.  By the way, don’t dismiss the Jerusalem-God controversies… We guarantee these issues will be showing up in direct mail pieces in Iowa, Wisconsin, Ohio and Florida, places where either religion or Israel matter to some swing voters.

*** A diminished Biden: And here’s one more point we want to make about Clinton last night: By defending Obama and castigating the GOP, he played the traditional role of the VP. Just think if last night had been capped by Joe Biden and not Clinton. Would the evening still have ended on a high note? There’s no doubt that Biden has been a valuable member of the administration internally, and his issue portfolio has been as big if not even bigger than Dick Cheney’s. But here’s something to keep in mind before Biden’s speech before Obama’s tonight: His stature has been a bit diminished. So you have Clinton – not Biden – delivering last night’s final speech. You have Biden speaking in the 9:00 pm ET hour tonight. And you see that Pew poll featuring a lot of negative words when asked to describe the vice president.

*** “Promises Kept” vs. “The Breakup”: In advance Obama’s acceptance speech tonight, his campaign releases a web video -- entitled “Promises kept” -- that replays his 2008 acceptance speech advocating for tax cuts for the middle class, investments and accountability in education, health care reform, equal pay for women, and the end of the Iraq war. Meanwhile, the RNC has anew TV ad (though it doesn’t say where it’s airing) that shows a woman dumping Obama as if on a date. It’s entitled “The Breakup.”

*** Thursday’s convention schedule:

7:00 pm ET hour: Obama Campaign Manager Jim Messina, Antonio Villaraigosa, Beau Biden (who places his father’s name into nomination), Tammy Baldwin
8:00 pm hour: Caroline Kennedy, John Lewis, Jennifer Granholm, Eva Longoria, Brian Schweitzer, Charlie Crist, John Kerry
9:00 pm hour: Jill Biden, Joe Biden
10:00 pm hour: Dick Durbin, Barack Obama

*** Romney to appear on “Meet”: Lastly, we want to note that NBC’s David Gregory will interview Mitt Romney on “Meet the Press” this Sunday. It’s Romney’s first MTP interview since 2009.

Countdown to 1st presidential debate: 27 days
Countdown to VP debate: 35 days
Countdown to 2nd presidential debate: 40 days
Countdown to 3rd presidential debate: 46 days
Countdown to Election Day: 61 days

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