President Obama waves after a campaign event in Green Bay, Wisconsin. (Reuters/Larry Downing)
Do voters in 2012 face a choice between Bill Clinton and George W. Bush? That's how President Barack Obama, returning to the campaign trail with gusto after a break to respond to Sandy, cast the election during a final push in the battleground state of Wisconsin. He also looked to harness the bipartisan truce fostered by the devastating superstorm.
"We know the ideas that work. We also know the ideas that don't work, because in the eight years after Bill Clinton left office, his policies were reversed," Obama told about 2,600 people in Green Bay, Wis. Obama pointed to Bush's tax cuts that chiefly benefited the wealthiest Americans and charged that his Republican predecessor had given "free license" to the rich and corporations to "play by a different set of rules" than middle-class Americans.
The result was sluggish job growth, he said, and "an economic crisis that we've been cleaning up for the last four years." (The White House has struggled to draw a strong connection between Bush's tax cuts and the global financial meltdown of 2007-2008. Bush inherited an economy that was spinning down after the high-tech bubble burst and suffering from the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist strikes.)
"In the closing weeks of this campaign, Gov. Romney has been using all his talents as a salesman to dress up these very same policies that failed our country so badly—the very same policies we've been clearing up after for the past four years," Obama continued. "And he's offering them up as change. He's saying he's the candidate of change.
"What the governor is offering sure ain't change," the president quipped.
The embattled Democratic incumbent has made that argument a few times before—and Clinton has essentially done so as well, notably in his well-regarded speech at the party's nominating convention in Charlotte, N.C. The point is to defuse the political danger that the still-sour economy—the top issue on voters' minds—poses to Obama. While recent polls have shown the public trusts Mitt Romney more to manage the economy, they also show that more Americans think Obama has their interests in mind.
"After four years as president, you know me by now. You may not agree with every decision I've made. You may be frustrated at the pace of change. But you know what I believe, you know where I stand. You know I'm willing to make tough decisions even when they're not politically convenient," Obama said. "And you know I'll fight for you and your families every single day as hard as I know how."
(Ironically, Obama also seemed to echo Bush's stump speech in 2004, when he faced a stiff challenge from Democratic Sen. John Kerry. At a Nov. 1, 2004, rally in Milwaukee, Wis.—and indeed at most late campaign events that year—Bush riffed that sometimes he was too blunt and sometimes he mangled the English language, "but at all times, whether you agree with me or not, you know where I stand, what I believe and where I'm going to lead this country.")
So is Clinton, who will be campaigning for Obama through Tuesday, a kind of "supersurrogate"?
"We'd rather have President Bill Clinton out there than Newt Gingrich or whomever the Romney team has on their side," said Obama campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki. "There's no one better to make the case for the middle class, for why the American people should send the president back for another four years, why he's the better fighter for the middle class, than President Bill Clinton."
After keeping off the campaign trail since Monday to oversee the federal government response to Sandy, the president played up his role and looked to harness the political truce that the disaster fostered. He noted that he visited devastated areas of New Jersey on Wednesday with Republican Gov. Chris Christie, who has warmly praised Obama's handling of the catastrophe.
"For the past few days, all of us have been focused on one of the worst storms in our lifetimes, and we're awed and we're humbled by nature's destructive power," he said. "We mourn the loss of so many people, our hearts go out to those who've lost their loved ones. We pledge to help those whose lives have been turned upside down.
"We've also been inspired these last few days, because when disaster strikes, we see America at its best," the president continued. "All the petty differences that consume us in normal times all seem to melt away. There are no Republicans or Democrats during a storm: They're just fellow Americans."
Obama highlighted "leaders of different parties, working to fix what's broken, neighbors helping neighbors cope with tragedy, communities rallying to rebuild, a spirit that says 'in the end we're all in this together,' that we rise or fall as one nation, as one people."
Some Republicans fret that Sandy gave Obama a media platform simply unavailable to Romney: the commander in chief seemingly setting aside partisan politics and responding to a national crisis.
The president began the stop on a light note, after remarks by Green Bay Packers defensive star Charles Woodson, who pledged $100,000 to the Red Cross to help Sandy victims.
"I want to thank all of you for giving such a welcome to a Bears fan," Obama joked. "And I especially want to thank one of the greatest defensive players in NFL history for being here today, Charles Woodson." The president highlighted Woodson's pledge, underlining "that's the kind of guy he is."