‘I hope you still believe!’: On Broadway, Obama and Clinton make a ‘forward’ argument against Romney

New Amsterdam Theater, after the Clinton-Obama show. (Reid Pillifant)
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Of the three fund-raisers President Obama attended in New York City last night, the last one, dubbed "Barack on Broadway" at the New Amsterdam Theater, was supposed to be the affordable one, for younger and smaller donors.

Tickets were as low as $250, and the campaign had freed up a certain number of "Gen44" tickets for just $100.

But the evening still had a decidedly older feel.

Bald heads dotted the theater seats for a program that featured Patti Lupone, Angela Lansbury and James Earl Jones, among other Broadway stars, singing showtunes like the familiar "Everything's Coming Up Roses" and "Over the Rainbow," along with some lesser-known ones like "She Likes Basketball" and the composite "America Sings" (which takes its lyrics from a couple dozen famous Americans, from Mark Twain to Toni Morrison to Thomas Jefferson, according to the Playbill).

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The formal introduction came from former president Bill Clinton, who entered to wild applause just before 10 p.m., like an old crooner threatening to upstage his younger replacement.

"You know, I was worried about getting half a step slow doing this because my whole life is my foundation now," said Clinton, who at the night's first stop had reversed some recent praise of Romney by promising his election would be "calamitous" for the country.

"I’m a little rusty at politics," he said. "But this is my third event tonight where I am the warm-up act for the president, so I am about to get my steps down and my rhythm going, you know?" 

Clinton found the rhythm fast, outlining in quick succession why he said it was "essential" to re-elect Obama, a list that included 27 months of job growth, the auto bailout, the return of manufacturing more generally, and the health care bill.

Clinton said the Republican criticisms were "hard for them since Governor Romney’s finest act as governor was to sign a bill with the individual mandate in it, which he has now renounced."

"I could give you 50 more things, but you get the idea," he said. "Why aren’t things roaring along now? Because Europe is in trouble and because the Republican Congress has adopted the European economic policy."

Shortly after that, Obama joined him on stage, and Clinton retreated, just barely, to a stool a few feet behind the podium.

"It is good to be back on Broadway!" said Obama, who had a similar event at the same theater back in September of 2007.

Obama called Clinton an "unbelievable opening act" and praised him for helping "guide the Democratic Party out of the wilderness and to lay the groundwork for a sensible, thoughtful, common-sense, progressive agenda that is important to remember at this moment."

The sepia tone was a little contagious. At one point, Obama referred to his opponent as "George Romney," Mitt's father.

"Wrong guy," Obama said, as the crowd laughed.

Obama gave what has become his stump speech of late, warning against what might happen if the country elects Mitt Romney and promising to move the country "forward" on issues like foreign policy and women's health.

"We don’t need a situation where women aren’t controlling their own health care choices," he said, as the crowd gradually came to its feet for the crescendo. "We don’t need to eliminate Planned Parenthood. I want my daughters to have the same opportunities as my sons. That’s part of what America is about. We’re not turning back the clock! We’re not going backwards!"

The speech still felt like a work in progress, as Obama worked the crowd into a lather, only to have them sit back down for some more professorial explication. 

"I still believe in you," he said, in closing. "I hope you still believe in me. I hope you still believe! If people ask you what this campaign is about, you tell them it’s still about hope and it’s still about change. And if you’re willing to knock on some doors and make some phone calls, and talk to your friends and neighbors, and work just as hard as you did in 2008, we will finish what we started and remind the world why it is America is the greatest nation on Earth."

As they filtered out, the crowd seemed satisfied enough, though the line at the merchandise table wasn't even one deep, and the cane-holding companion of an older woman buying a "2O12" shirt had plenty of room to rest comfortably against the counter.

Outside, people were searching the ground to retrieve their umbrellas.

"I think the speech that we heard tonight was tired, honestly," said Dan Efram, one of the younger attendees. "He seemed tired, he seemed like he had given three speeches or more today. Unfortunately, I was expecting a revelation, and I am a big fan, and I didn't get that."

Efram said the president needs to "own his accomplishments in a more personal way" and draw the contrasts with Romney even clearer.

"The average American needs a real definitive understanding of where this can go," he said. "I think to the average American it's really difficult to get across that point, but that point is really important: what it means to go backward."

And he was still searching for the voter connection that was such a hallmark of the 2008 campaign.

"If the engagement of the youth is one of the things that is important, obviously they didn't reach it here, because it's the type of event where you wouldn't," he said. (A friend described the musical part of the program as "really cheesy Broadway tunes.")

"But I don't see the other ones, where are they?" Efram went on. "I'd like to know where they are so I can go and see them and can change my mind. I'm inspired to help, but not by what I saw tonight."

There was some evidence that the president's message was starting to set in.

After most of the crowd had dispersed, an African-American umbrella vendor named Ted ("I don't do last names"), who hadn't attended the event, stood against a police barricade looking up at the marquee.

I asked how he thought Obama is doing.

"It's about time we got a black president, he cleaned up all Bush's shit," said Ted, who wore thick glasses and a salt-and-pepper beard and said he's a veteran of the "tail end" of the Vietnam War.

"Hopefully he'll get this next term and then he can really put it down," Ted said. "It takes more than one term to really put it down right and Congress is holding him back. You know that."