CHARLOTTE, N.C. — When Bill Clinton takes the convention stage in prime-time Wednesday to praise President Barack Obama, it will be the most visible step on a path toward reconciliation for two former rivals whose political fortunes are now inextricably linked.
That Obama would choose the former president for such a high-profile speaking spot and that Clinton would accept seemed unfathomable in 2008, when the two clashed bitterly during the Democratic nomination showdown between Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton, the former president's wife. Even though Hillary Clinton now serves as Obama's secretary of state, resentments between the current and former presidents have been slow to ebb.
Tempers flared between the two in 2008, leading to accusations of race baiting and recriminations.
Bill Clinton dismissed Obama's claims that he was a stronger opponent of the Iraq war than Hillary Clinton, calling it a "fairy tale." That angered some black leaders who contended that Bill Clinton was diminishing Obama's quest to be the nation's first African-American president. Bill Clinton denied the accusation.
Obama upset the Clinton campaign when he suggested that President Ronald Reagan, a Republican, had "changed the trajectory of America" in a way Clinton's presidency had not.
But now, with the Democratic incumbent Obama locked in a tight race with Republican Mitt Romney, Obama has fully embraced Bill Clinton as a political partner in hopes of capturing the former president's uncanny knack for political survival against tough odds.
"President Clinton has an economic record second to none," Obama campaign manager Jim Messina said at a briefing Tuesday hosted by ABC News and Yahoo. "He's a very credible messenger ... he's going to deliver a very compelling speech."
Obama called Bill Clinton in July and asked him to give the speech that would place the president's name in nomination. Bill Clinton accepted enthusiastically, aides to both men said.
If the arrangement seems like a forced marriage, it's also a mutually beneficial pairing that brings Bill Clinton back to the national political forefront and lends Obama the validation of the Democratic Party's most popular elder statesman.
With the economic recovery still tepid and unemployment stubbornly high, Obama campaign officials are eager to portray the president's economic policies as mirroring those of his Democratic predecessor. Many voters remember Bill Clinton's tenure as a period of prosperity. The economy added some 22 million new jobs during his two terms in the White House from January 1993 to the start of 2001. The former president left office with a balanced federal budget and surplus.
But it's not a one-way proposition, as Bill Clinton needs an Obama win in November to preserve his own legacy.
"From President Clinton's perspective, if Romney were elected he'd repeal everything Clinton ever did and everything he wants to advance," longtime Bill Clinton adviser Paul Begala said. "He and President Obama share an economic philosophy ferociously focused on the middle class, and he believes Obama has us on the right track."
Begala also serves as senior adviser for Priorities USA Action, an independent group supporting Obama's re-election that has struggled to compete financially with similar Republican-leaning groups. Bill Clinton has signed on to help the group and did his first event in August, briefing donors on the political landscape. His assistance helped the group raise about $10 million in August, its best monthly haul.
Bill Clinton stars in an Obama campaign commercial currently running in battleground states. In the ad, the former president suggests that Romney would return the country to George W. Bush-era economic policies while affirming Obama's approach that he argues mirrors his own.
"President Obama has a plan to rebuild America from the ground up," Bill Clinton says, adding, "That's what happened when I was president."
To be sure, Bill Clinton hasn't always been a model surrogate for the Obama campaign.
The former president once praised Romney's "sterling" business credentials at Bain Capital, the private equity firm where Romney amassed a large fortune. The remark contradicted the Obama campaign's effort to paint the GOP nominee as a plutocrat who cares more about generating profits than creating jobs.
Bill Clinton also broke with Obama on tax policy, suggesting George W. Bush-era tax cuts for higher income earners be extended at least temporarily. Obama has pledged to allow the cuts to expire as a way to cut the federal deficit.
Bill Clinton later backed off that comment, but Republicans seized on it to suggest he was siding with the GOP on taxes.
Democrats hope Bill Clinton's seal of approval might also extend to constituencies Obama has struggled to win over.
A recent Fox News poll found a nearly 20-point gap among white voters for the two men —61 percent of white voters approve of the former president, while 42 percent have a favorable view of Obama. Among independents, about 46 percent have a favorable view of Obama while 64 percent view Bill Clinton favorably.
Mindful of the former president's appeal to those groups, the Romney campaign has tried to co-opt Bill Clinton's record as a weapon to use against Obama.
They've done so most notably in a TV ad claiming Obama has tried to strip the work requirements from welfare, which was a key component of the welfare reform law Clinton signed in 1996 and which remains one of his signature accomplishments.
Bill Clinton released a statement saying the ad was "not true" — an assessment shared by independent fact-checkers.
Former President Clinton has enjoyed success and riches since leaving the White House, delivering paid speeches and traveling the globe doing humanitarian work on behalf of the foundation that bears his name. In 2010, Obama enlisted former presidents Clinton and Bush to lead efforts to help Haiti recover from an earthquake that produced widespread devastation.