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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Bill Clinton: Give Me a Break

A new Romney ad would have viewers believe that former President Bill Clinton was commenting on President Obama’s handling of the economy when he said, “Give me a break. This whole thing is the biggest fairy tale I’ve ever seen.” That’s false. Clinton’s 2008 comment was aimed at Obama’s portrayal of Hillary Clinton as supporting Iraq war policies.

The ad comes on the heels of Clinton’s rousing endorsement of Obama during the Democratic National Convention, a speech more people considered to be the highlight of the Democratic convention than Obama’s own speech. The Romney ad seeks to remind voters that Clinton hasn’t always been so effusive in his praise of Obama — at least not when Obama was locked in a heated Democratic presidential primary battle with Clinton’s wife, Hillary.

The ad focuses on the economy — arguing that under Obama it has gotten worse — and then says Obama has called on Bill Clinton “to help his failing campaign.” The ad then borrows a clip from a recent Obama campaign ad in which Clinton says, “This election, to me, is about which candidate is more likely to return us to full employment.” Clinton then goes on to endorse Obama.

The Romney ad’s narrator says Clinton is a “good soldier, helping his party’s president,” but adds, “What did Bill Clinton say about Barack Obama in 2008?”

The ad then shows a clip of Clinton saying, “Give me a break. This whole thing is the biggest fairy tale I’ve ever seen.”

The narrator then follows up with two economic statistics. The first is that there are “23 million Americans struggling for work.” According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, that’s an accurate count of the number of unemployed (12.5 million) plus those working part time who would like to be working full time (8 million) and those “marginally attached” to the workforce (2.6 million), which includes workers so discouraged by the bad economy that they have stopped looking for work. The ad’s narrator also states that the  “middle class [is] falling further behind,” a statement from a CNN Money story about a Pew Research Center report that talks about the “lost decade of the middle class” and spans the presidencies of both Obama and George W. Bush. (In fact, the people surveyed blamed Bush more than Obama for the downturn.)

The ad then follows up with Clinton repeating, “Give me a break.”

Given the context of the ad and its focus on the economy, viewers might assume Clinton was talking about something to do with Obama’s economic policy. He wasn’t.

Rather, while stumping for his wife in 2008, Clinton expressed his frustration with what he viewed as the media giving Obama a free pass regarding Obama’s position on the war in Iraq.

Here’s the fuller quote — you can view it here — in which Clinton takes a moment to talk about Obama’s Iraq war stance:

Clinton, Jan. 8, 2008: It is wrong that Senator Obama got to go through 15 debates trumpeting his superior judgment and how he had been against the war in every year, enumerating the years, and never got asked one time, not once, well, how could you say that when you said in 2004 you didn’t know how you would have voted on the resolution, you said in 2004 there was no difference between you and George Bush on the war. And you took that speech you’re now running on off your website in 2004. And there’s no difference in your voting record and Hillary’s ever since. Give me a break. This whole thing is the biggest fairy tale I’ve ever seen.

Foreign Policy provides a fuller explanation of the issues at play in Clinton’s 2008 remarks, but as is clear from the passage above, his comments had nothing to do with Obama’s economic policy, as the Romney ad implies.

So why do Republicans even care what Clinton thinks of Obama? At least one poll shows that independent voters rated Clinton’s convention speech significantly more positively than Obama’s, leading a Washington Post columnist to opine that “whatever nudge Obama might have gotten [in daily tracking polls] could very well be the Clinton bump, not his own.”

— Robert Farley