ASPEN - Near the end of a short speech Saturday in Aspen, former President Bill Clinton said he thought President Obama will be re-elected in 2012, but pointed to former governors Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman as Republicans who might end up making good challengers.
Clinton, 64, was a late addition to the Aspen Ideas Festival's speaker schedule, announced Friday evening. He appeared inside a packed Greenwald Pavilion at the Aspen Institute, with the overflow spilling into the Paepcke Building where they watched him on a large monitor.
"I like Huntsman and Romney," Clinton said. "Romney's a much better candidate than he was last time because he's not apologizing [for signing Massachusetts' health care bill]."
Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, has said that as president, he would work to repeal the compromise national health care bill that Congress passed in the first year of the Obama administration. "That's probably the price of getting the nomination," Clinton said.
"Huntsman hasn't said what he's for yet, but I just kind of like him," the former two-term U.S. president said. "He looks so authentic. He looks like a real guy, a real human being. I like his family; I like that he's kind of got an iconoclastic way. I mean he was a pretty good governor."
Clinton said U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota also could make some noise among the current GOP contenders.
"She's been a better candidate than I thought she would be, and I don't agree with her on nearly anything," he said. "She's got a very compelling personal story, and she's got a lot of juice. She turns a lot of those anti-government people on."
Make no mistake, Clinton, who was president from 1993 to 2000, believes the Democratic Party will prevail in 2012.
"I think that the president will be re-elected; I've always thought so," he said to applause.
Obama's first term contained tangible progress, the former president said.
"First of all, he can talk about what he did do. He took steps which avoided a depression. He saved the automobile industry by not just bailing them out but requiring a serious restructuring," Clinton said.
He said 80,000 more people are working in the automobile industry than at the height of the recent recession. And more hires are likely this year after the recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan, Clinton said.
"I think he can talk about the fact that when he took office, we had 2 percent of the global market on the electric batteries that will power the next generation of electric cars and hybrid vehicles, and on Jan. 1 of this year we had 20 percent of [that] market," he said.
If Congress provides more manufacturing incentives, "we'll have 40 percent by 2014," he said.
Clinton said Obama has done a good job in trying to "harmonize" America's differences: "I think he's got a good record on gay rights. I think he's got a good record on trying to promote diversity in a positive way."
Clinton noted that while the United States has been free of large-scale turmoil after the economic crisis, Europe has struggled. Ethnic and religious tensions are on the rise there. The dream of a united Europe, whole and free for the first time since the nation-states arose after the fall of the Soviet Union, is at risk, he said.
Clinton said Obama has been tough on terrorism. Long before Osama bin Laden "was dispatched," Clinton said, the U.S. redeployed troops and rethought its military strategy. Drone attacks on terror hot spots in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq achieved more success during Obama's first years in office, he said.
"I think he'll have a good record on national security, I think he'll have a lot of things to point to on the economy, and I think his work in education has been level," Clinton said.
Discussing education, Clinton said he is distressed that the nation has dropped from first to ninth in the area of young adults with four-year degrees. "It is a prescription for economic calamity," he said.
A recent student-loan reform law "is still largely a secret to the American people," he said. The legislation allows "every student from now on, no matter how much they borrowed, to pay their loans back for up to 20 years, as a small percentage of their income. Which means no student will ever have to drop out of college again because of their loan debt, and no student will ever have to take a job because of their loan."
With regard to health care reform, he said Americans cannot afford "to mess up this debate now." A lot of what's being said about the potential effects of a plan that provides quality coverage to all U.S. citizens "is just pure bull," Clinton said.
He recounted a recent trip to the Netherlands to speak at the 200th anniversary of a multinational insurance firm, when he spoke with a company executive who told him that the country spent a mere 9 percent of its gross domestic product on health care.
"And he looked at me and said, 'It's quite enough. We're quite healthy.' And he said, 'Health insurance is not like other insurance. We make our money on other things. We cover our policies on health insurance. It is not suitable to make fast profits [from it].' "
"This guy was from an insurance company," Clinton said. "I'm telling you folks, if you want to fix the budget and fix America's competitiveness, we have to seriously deal with [health care], and you cannot do it with slogans, you've got to do it with facts."
At times, Clinton appeared tired and flushed as he spoke, lacking his trademark charisma. Still, he managed to deliver 45 minutes of commentary, sparked by questions from political journalist Ronald Brownstein.
At the request of Clinton's office, the media was not allowed inside the tent where he spoke. Festival staff at first said the event was off-limits to the press, but later allowed reporters to cover the interview via live audio and video feed inside the Paepcke Building.