NEW YORK (Reuters) - President Barack Obama enlisted Bill Clinton to campaign alongside him in New York on Monday, tapping the popular ex-president’s star power to rake in cash for his re-election bid from Wall Street investors and show-business elite.
The two men teamed up for the first time since Clinton put Obama’s campaign on the defensive last week when he became the most prominent Democrat to disavow attacks on Republican challenger Mitt Romney’s record as a private equity executive.
But there was no sign of discord as Obama and Clinton put on a show of unity for a night of fundraising that included a reception with big-money donors, a gala at the Waldorf Astoria hotel, and a star-studded “Barack on Broadway” concert.
The events raised more than $3.5 million.
Although surrounded by supporters at events in the Big Apple, Obama has struggled to rekindle the enthusiasm of the Democratic base that swept him to victory last time.
He acknowledged that he faces a difficult path to re-election and warned his audiences that hundreds of millions in Republican super political action committee fundraising would fuel negative advertising aimed at feeding “all those fears, anxieties” and frustration with the economy.
“That’s basically the argument that the other side is making. They’re not offering anything new, they’re just saying, things are tough, it’s Obama’s fault,” he said.
At the first stop on the evening’s fundraising tour, Clinton told a gathering at the Upper East Side home of billionaire hedge fund manager Marc Lasry that Obama must “win this election and win it unambiguously.”
“The alternative would be, in my opinion, calamitous for our country and the world,” Clinton said as he and Obama stood shoulder to shoulder amid donors who paid $40,000 a head and sipped cocktails.
Clinton accused Romney of wanting to pursue “wrong-headed” economic policies and linked the Republican’s focus on budget austerity to crisis-hit Europe.
As Wall Street supporters sat on plush sofas, Obama avoided some of the anti-business rhetoric that his campaign has used against Romney and to blunt criticism over the sluggish economy.
Obama cast himself as a friend of free enterprise, but asserted that Republicans had adopted a policy of market “absolutism.”
BON JOVI and CLINTON ADMIRATION
Then moving to a packed Waldorf ballroom, rocker Jon Bon Jovi - a VIP guest on Air Force One from Washington - was the warm-up act for some 500 people who paid a minimum of $2,500 per ticket to cheer the two Democratic heavyweights.
With Clinton sitting to one side of the stage and occasionally stroking his chin, Obama said Romney’s “vision for moving America forward is, as Bill Clinton just said, the same agenda of the previous administration - except on steroids.”
Obama and Clinton have not always been on the same page. Their relationship has been strained at times since the ex-Illinois senator beat the former president’s wife, Hillary Clinton, now secretary of state, in a bitter race for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination.
But Bill Clinton remains a figure admired by most Democrats, and Obama’s aides believe his support could be pivotal for pulling in campaign money and selling independent voters on the president’s economic plans.
Clinton oversaw one of the most prosperous economic periods in recent U.S. history and was the last president to balance the federal budget, something Democrats are eager to remind Americans about before the November 6 election.
Obama is neck-and-neck with Romney in polls and could use all the help he can get.
Dismal jobs numbers last Friday underscored the weakness of the economy and the challenge he faces as he tries to convince voters to give him a second term. The U.S. jobless rate ticked up to 8.2 percent in May.
Clinton’s fundraising prowess is also seen as more important than ever as Obama’s advisers grow concerned that his campaign-money advantage as a sitting president could be undercut by outside conservative groups spending big to attack his record.
The two candidates tended to their campaign wallets in tough venues politically as Monday was all about money. While Obama was with a traditional Republican constituency in business elites, Romney was scheduled at fundraisers in Portland, Oregon, and Seattle, Washington. Both states are widely seen as sure wins for Obama in the November election.
What the White House may not have counted on from Clinton in the days leading up to their New York appearance was his habit of speaking his mind - even when that means going off-message from the Obama campaign.
Clinton praised Romney in a CNN interview last week for a “sterling business career” and expressed misgivings about the Obama campaign’s strategy of attacking his role at Bain Capital where he made his fortune.
Several other Democratic politicians have also raised questions whether the Bain-related broadsides against Romney backfire with voters by coming across as anti-free enterprise.
In the interview, Clinton - the last Democrat to serve two terms - made clear, however, his belief that Obama was best-suited to the presidency and predicted he would win re-election.
Romney has staked his claim to the presidency by playing up his experience at Bain. But Obama’s aides have sought to cast his business record as that of a job-cutting corporate raider and have recently broadened their criticism to his time as Massachusetts governor.
The final act of the presidential double-bill played to a packed house on Broadway. The pair appeared onstage at a $250-a-seat concert fundraiser at the 1,700-seat New Amsterdam Theatre, home of Disney’s “Mary Poppins.”
The standing-room-only crowd was primed for Obama and Clinton with performances by Broadway stars, including James Earl Jones, Stockard Channing, Patti LuPone, Angela Lansbury, Mandy Patinkin and Neil Patrick Harris.
Additional reporting by Samuel P. Jacobs; Editing by Cynthia Ostermanm, Christopher Wilson and Jackie Frank