DENVER—Bill Clinton walked onto the stage of the Pepsi Center on Wednesday night to sustained, roaring and amorous applause. Instead of signs with the names of Obama or Hillary, the hall waved American flags. Every time the ovations seemed to subside, they roared back up again. The time clock above the teleprompter froze at 10 minutes. With the tribute not eating into his speech, Clinton let them applaud. Not that he could have stopped them if he wanted.
When the applause finally died down, Clinton didn’t waste any time putting to rest the speculation about how enthusiastically he would make the case for Barack Obama and his running mate, Joe Biden.
”I am here, first, to support Barack Obama,” said Clinton. “And second, I’m here to warm up the crowd for Joe Biden.”
As expected, he honored the campaign of his wife, who watched from a booth across the floor with their daughter Chelsea. But he also made his purpose clear.
“Last night, Hillary told us in no uncertain terms that she’ll do everything she can to elect Barack Obama,” he said. “That makes two of us. And that makes 18 million of us.” He also sought to dispel the notion that he held a grudge against Obama for not choosing Hillary as vice president, saying that in Obama’s “first presidential decision, the selection of a running mate, he hit it out of the park.”
In the days leading up to the speech, people close to Clinton complained that the Obama campaign was forcing him to speak only about foreign policy and national security. When asked if it was wise to restrict Clinton to remarks only about foreign affairs, John Podesta, his one-time chief-of-staff, said that Clinton’s views on international policy were followed with great interest around the world but also noted that Clinton was a uniquely qualified and accomplished speaker on the domestic issues.
“This isn’t 1992 and Obama shouldn’t repeat everything Clinton did. But Clinton’s emphasis on rewarding work worked for him,” said Podesta. “And Clinton is a great salesman for it.”
Clinton did indeed speak about foreign affairs and Obama’s readiness to lead.
“Everything I learned in my eight years as president and in the work I’ve done since, in America and across the globe, has convinced me that Barack Obama is the man for this job.”
He spoke about a country weakened by unilateralism, dependence on imported oil, indebtedness to foreign lenders and a backsliding on non-proliferation treaties. But, somewhat unexpectedly, he also ventured into domestic affairs.
“Most important of all,” he said, “Barack Obama knows that America cannot strong abroad unless we are first strong at home. People the world over have always been more impressed by the power of our example than by the example of our power.”
He talked about the ballooning national debt, a decrease in jobs, a loss of health care by more and more Americans, and a higher level of poverty. And he directly addressed the question of Obama’s experience, something he has criticized Obama about for months.
“My fellow Democrats,” he said. “America can do better than that. And Barack Obama will do better than that.”
Soon after, the audience took up a chant of “Yes We Can.” Clinton paused, took a glass of water from the podium and took a sip.
“Yes we can,” he said, after a few beats. “But first we have to elect him.”
Another fear among Obama supporters and inside the campaign was that Clinton would spend too much time talking about his own accomplishments in a convention that is all about the future.
Clinton did recall his own nomination, 16 years ago, but did so to Obama’s benefit.
“I was too young and too inexperienced to be Commander-in-Chief,” he said. “Sound Familiar? It didn’t work in 1992, because we were on the right side of history. And it will not work in 2088, because Barack Obama is on the right side of history.”
Immediately afterward, Senator Chuck Schumer offered the speech as proof that the former president had, in the end, decided to commit himself to a fight he had been openly reluctant to join.
“He focused on Barack Obama and the need to elect Barack Obama. So anyone who has any doubts about Bill Clinton’s commitment to elect Barack Obama should rip them up and throw them away."