The popular ex-president returned to spotlight with animated speech in support of the Democratic agenda.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Former President Bill Clinton grabbed the spotlight at the Democratic National Convention Wednesday night to recall the "roaring" economy of the 1990s and hold forth the promise of a new era of prosperity under President Obama.
Clinton, earning an onstage embrace from Obama at the conclusion of a 49-minute speech, urged an ecstatic, cheering crowd of Democrats to fight for the president's health care and economic stimulus plans, policies that almost certainly would be reversed with the election of Republican candidate Mitt Romney.
"When we vote in this election, we'll be deciding what kind of country we want to live in," Clinton, the party's popular elder statesman, said in one of the most animated speeches of his long public career. "If you want a winner-take-all 'you're-on-your-own' society, you should support the Republican ticket. If you want a country of shared opportunities and shared responsibility -- a we're-all-in-it-together' society -- you should vote for Barack Obama and Joe Biden."
Clinton's speech, an often ad-libbed point-by-point rebuttal of the GOP convention in Tampa, capped a night of withering critiques of Republican tax and budget policies by a Democrats, including Minnesota labor leader David Foster, who told the audience, "We don't need a president who fires steelworkers, or says, 'Let Detroit go bankrupt.'"
Clinton served as a reminder of the party unity that he helped forge after Obama defeated his wife, Hillary Clinton, in the 2008 Democratic primaries, a coalescing that paved the way to Obama's election and the appointment of the former first lady as secretary of state.
Clinton's speech, the most anticipated of the convention other than Obama's remarks Thursday, presented risks as well as validation for the president, who is presiding over a tepid economic recovery that Republicans hope will drive him from the White House.
Clinton's approval ratings are at his personal best, affording him a stature that some observers said could upstage Obama.
Despite the questions, Obama advisers believe the president could benefit from Clinton's forceful critique of Republican economic policies under former President George W. Bush, who left office amid a deep financial crisis.
"In Tampa ... the Republican argument against the president's re-election was pretty simple, pretty snappy," Clinton said. "'We left him a total mess, he hasn't cleaned it up fast enough, so fire him and put us back in.'"
As Clinton has stayed active in politics, he also has forged deep connections in Minnesota, where he addressed the Humphrey-Mondale Dinner last month to raise money and fire up state DFL Party activists, many of them now at the convention in Charlotte.
"I can't think of a better person to lay out not only what has happened in the past but how important it is for our country and our state to re-elect President Obama so that he can continue this upward trajectory of getting our country back on track," DFL Party Chair Ken Martin said.
To Democratic delegates from Minnesota and around the nation, Clinton also was a reminder of the good old days of Democratic victories.
"Bill Clinton proved himself to be a winner," said Bill Davis, a Democratic National Committeeman and co-chair of the DFL African-American Caucus. "He understands the economy, and he understands what it means to move the ball forward."
Recognizing Clinton's popularity, the Romney campaign responded with a statement contrasting his legacy with that of Obama.
"When it comes to the state of the economy, President Obama just can't match President Clinton," Romney spokeswoman Amanda Henneberg said. "Just this week, gas prices set a new record, the national debt topped $16 trillion, manufacturing slowed and the number of Americans on food stamps hit a record high."
Romney backers also note that Clinton has described Romney's business record as "sterling" and that he has differed with Obama on immediately repealing the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy amid this year's economic malaise.
Anticipating a stirring Clinton endorsement of Obama, Romney surrogates such as former Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman have been building up the narrative that the former president represents the past, not the future.
"Bill Clinton is up there talking about what he did in the 1990s," Coleman told Minnesota Republicans at their national convention in Tampa last week. "Well, somebody should remind [Obama] and Joe Biden that it's the 21st century."
'Looking at the future'
Despite GOP criticism, Democrats were eager to showcase one of their best cheerleaders during prime-time television.
"It's no accident that Democrats celebrate their past presidents, while Republicans virtually banish theirs," said U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer of New York.
Ben Finkenbinder, the Midwest press secretary for the Obama campaign, said Clinton's appearance reminded voters of "what the president's done to help the nation recover from the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression."
As Clinton praised Obama's efforts to reverse the economic slide he inherited from Bush, he also called out Romney's claims that the president has been trying to weaken the work requirements of Clinton's historic welfare reform law as a "doozy."
"The claim that President Obama weakened welfare reform's work requirement is just not true," he said. "But they keep running ads claiming it."
To many Democrats in Time Warner Cable Arena, Clinton still presented a model for growing an economy with tax policies and domestic programs that aid low-income and middle-class families, as well as small businesses.
"He's not just some blast from the past," Minnesota Democrat Amy Klobuchar, who appeared on the podium with other women Democrats in the U.S. Senate. "He's someone who has remained relevant."
Among those making a personal connection to the Clinton years was David Wellstone, the son of the late U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone. "I remember when Bill Clinton came out and campaigned with my dad, people said, 'Well, Bill Clinton is much more to the middle.'" But their common bond, Wellstone said, was that "they had this focus on the working families."
Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton, in Charlotte for the convention, recalled Clinton's speech in the Twin Cities last month. "There is nobody better at looking at the future and describing the future than President Clinton," he said.
Clinton's speech emphasizing Democratic unity came after an awkward moment of division arising from party leaders' decision to reinstate a controversial plank to the convention platform recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
Republicans have sought to portray Obama as a more left-leaning version of Clinton. But some Democrats say Clinton could also help embolden the president to more forcefully challenge Republicans in Congress, who have been largely unified in opposition to his agenda.
Said U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, a Minnesotan who co-chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus: "I think what Obama can learn from Clinton is to get in the room and mix it up in Congress."
Kevin Diaz is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau. Rachel E. Stassen-Berger • Twitter: @rachelsb