LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – Celebrating the 20th anniversary of the start of his presidential campaign, Bill Clinton on Saturday offered a vigorous defense of President Barack Obama against what he called the same anti-government stances he faced during his campaign and two terms in office.
The former president told a crowd of about 5,000 people outside the Old State House Museum in downtown Little Rock, the same spot where he announced his White House bid in 1991, that Obama faces a different set of challenges but is battling the same questions about the role of government in growing the economy.
"Underlying those challenges is the same old debate about whether government is the problem or whether we need smart government and a changing economy working together to create the opportunities of tomorrow," Clinton told the crowd, which was flooded with old campaign signs for him or his wife, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who lost to Obama in 2008's Democratic nominating contest.
The speech was the centerpiece of a weekend commemorating Clinton's presidential announcement, but it also offered plenty of parallels between his presidency and Obama's, including opposition on multiple fronts from Republicans.
"There's not a single example on our planet, not one, where an anti-government strategy has produced a vibrant economy with strong and broad-based growth and prosperity," Clinton said.
Clinton said Obama has offered plans to stimulate the economy, reduce the long-term debt and address the housing crisis, and it's now up to Congress "to act on those plans, and if they don't like them, then come up with better ideas."
Holding hands with Hillary Clinton, the former president arrived at the stage to Fleetwood Mac's "Don't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow," the song that became the anthem of his 1992 presidential bid. The weekend's events included the dedication Friday of a $10.5 million pedestrian bridge at his presidential library.
Clinton joked that when he decided to run for president, his mother was the only one who believed the-then governor of a small southern state would win the presidency.
"We just made a decision that the country needed a new kind of politics, a new kind of economics, a new commitment to get into the next century with the American Dream alive and well, a commitment that would restore the middle class and give people who were poor a chance to work into it," Clinton said. "We decided to stop the politics of pitting one American against another by race, by ethnicity, by gender, by income, by anything else. We decided, `well, we tried all that for a while, let's try working together and see how that works out."'
The former president last month held his annual Clinton Global Initiative, a gathering of government and business leaders to discuss world problems, and in November he plans to release a book on the economy.
James Carville, the political strategist who worked on Clinton's 1992 campaign, said the weekend wasn't about nostalgia but pride in what Clinton achieved through his campaign and his two terms in office.
"The camaraderie we had and the things we did and the people I had a chance to work with is something I'll live with pride, not nostalgia, for the rest of my days," Carville said.
The reunion of Clinton supporters and staff turned into a pep rally of sorts for Democrats as they approach the 2012 election, and come as Obama suffers poor approval numbers. That's especially true in Arkansas, where he lost in 2008's primary to Hillary Clinton and hasn't visited since 2006.
Former Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater told Saturday's audience that at the time of Clinton's candidacy, many had believed the progressive movement had lost its way.
"We were literally in the wilderness," Slater said.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Obama's former chief of staff and a former top aide to Clinton, said after Saturday's event that the weekend was a reminder of what started with Clinton's candidacy.
"This was the beginning of re-connecting people with the American dream and reminding them that this is what we dedicated our lives to and we shouldn't give up on it," Emanuel said.