Former President Bill Clinton told a sold-out crowd in Baltimore on Tuesday that he is confident Washington will work quickly through the nation's looming fiscal crisis after the election despite predictions that partisanship will continue to leave the federal government gridlocked next year.
"Some of you may be worried about this fiscal cliff — don't be, yet," Clinton said of the combination of across-the-board spending cuts and tax increases scheduled to take effect automatically at the end of the year. "Almost no matter what happens, they will have to do something on this budget."
In a 70-minute, widely optimistic address at Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, the 42nd president focused mainly on his post-White House work at the Clinton Global Initiative, including speeding access to HIV drugs and combating childhood obesity. But he also dipped into national politics, noting President Barack Obama's bailout of the auto industry — a frequent campaign talking point — and reiterating his argument that Republican nominee Mitt Romney's fiscal policies don't add up.
Clinton's visit, which was announced in July, coincided with a resurgence in popularity that began with his address to the Democratic convention in Charlotte, N.C., last month. The wonky, folksy 48-minute speech, much of which was delivered off the cuff, suddenly thrust Clinton back into political relevance. Obama quipped later that Clinton should be appointed "the secretary of explaining stuff."
On Tuesday, Clinton made reference to that speech. Asked how he would deal with spiraling budget deficits, his one-word answer was a reprise of the earlier address: "Arithmetic."
A New York Times/CBS News poll in September found that two-thirds of registered voters have a positive view of Clinton, far better than his favorability ratings during his two terms in the White House. He has become a top surrogate for Obama in recent weeks. Hours before Clinton arrived in Baltimore, the Obama campaign released a video of him criticizing Romney's tax plan, for instance.
Clinton's speech at the Meyerhoff was the first in this year's Baltimore Speakers Series, organized by Stevenson University. The former president spoke for 45 minutes about the change that nonprofit organizations are creating globally. He then answered questions that had been submitted by members of the audience in advance — most of which dealt with how he would address the nation's problems if he were still in the White House.
He reiterated calls for Congress to adopt a 10-year budget plan front-loaded with new spending to boost the economy that would then begin to impose cuts to reduce the nation's debt in the out-years. He said the Nov. 6 election would be a defining event that would force Republicans and Democrats to work more cooperatively.
"I think you'll be surprised after this election," he said.
The Baltimore Sun is a media sponsor of the series.
David Ferguson, executive director of the Maryland Republican Party, said he respects the humanitarian mission of the Clinton Global Initiative but he questioned Clinton's role as an Obama surrogate.
"It's troubling when Barack Obama is president and Bill Clinton is his party's moral compass," Ferguson said, in reference to the Monica Lewinsky scandal and Clinton's subsequent impeachment in 1998. "People keep looking to him, but is he somebody worth looking to for moral direction?"
Clinton's recent rise has fueled speculation about whether his wife, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, might seek the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016.
The Romney campaign has generally avoided direct attacks on the former president — who carried Maryland with 50 percent of the vote in 1992 and 54 percent four years later. Instead, the GOP nominee has sought to define Obama as more liberal than Clinton and less willing to work across the aisle on the economy.
Before speaking in Baltimore, Clinton held a fundraiser in Washington for Democrat John Delaney, who is hoping to unseat 10-term incumbent Republican Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett in Maryland's 6th Congressional District. Clinton had endorsed Delaney before the state's April primary, helping to build momentum for the first-time candidate.
Delaney, a Potomac banker, was a prolific fundraiser for the Clintons.