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 re-election funds from wealthy Wall Street investors and Broadway 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 their 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 up a show of unity in New York, kicking off a night of fundraising that included a dinner with big-money donors, a gala at the ritzy Waldorf Astoria hotel and a star-studded “Barack on Broadway” concert. The events raised more than $3.5 million.
Clinton, white-haired and slimmed down from his White House years, told a reception hosted by 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 the two presidents stood shoulder to shoulder in a living room of a luxury home in a swank Upper East Side neighborhood.
Obama and Clinton have had a sometimes strained relationship since the former 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 Clinton remains a figure deeply 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 times in recent U.S. history and was the last president to balance the federal budget, something Democrats are keen to remind Americans of before the November 6 election.
At Lasry’s luxurious Manhattan home, where diners paid $40,000 a plate, Clinton accused Romney of wanting to pursue “wrong-headed” economic policies and linked the Republican’s focus on budget austerity to crisis-hit Europe.
Obama reminded the well-heeled audience that Clinton had presided over “one of the greatest booms that we’ve seen ... Everybody did well.”
He avoided some of the anti-business rhetoric that his campaign has used recently, casting himself as a friend of free enterprise, but asserted that Republicans had adopted a policy of market “absolutism.”
Obama, neck-and-neck with Romney in the polls, could use all the help he can muster after 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 increasingly concerned that his campaign-money advantage as sitting president could be undercut by outside conservative groups spending big to attack his record.
Romney was scheduled at a private fundraiser in Portland, Oregon, before heading to raise money in 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 was his habit of speaking his mind - even when that means going off-message from the Obama campaign.
Clinton, in a CNN interview last week, praised Romney 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 CNN 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.
Obama has angered some corporate executives with what they see as anti-business rhetoric, but that has not deterred him from courting Wall Street for campaign contributions.
Their next stop was rally of about 500 supporters at the Waldorf Astoria where Jon Bon Jovi was due to perform, with ticket prices starting at $2,500.
And their evening in New York was set to end with Obama and Clinton onstage at a $250-a-seat concert fundraiser at the 1,700-seat New Amsterdam Theatre, home of Disney’s “Mary Poppins.”
Obama and Clinton were due to appear together with a number of Broadway stars, including James Earl Jones, Stockard Channing, Patti LuPone, Angela Lansbury, Mandy Patinkin and Neil Patrick Harris.
Republicans have mocked Obama for his cozy ties with the show-business set. He will fly to Los Angeles for a fundraising dinner with gay and lesbian supporters later this week and will return to New York on June 14 to headline an event hosted by “Sex and the City” star Sarah Jessica Parker.
It was Obama’s second time sharing the fundraising spotlight with Clinton during the 2012 campaign. The two teamed up in April for an appearance in McLean, Virginia, where they raised more than $2 million.
Editing by Cynthia Osterman