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Bill Clinton: Obama faces 'same old debate' about government's role

Brian Chilson / AP

Former President Bill Clinton is greeted by well wishers Saturday as he arrives at a Little Rock, Ark., celebration of the 20th anniversary of his announcement that he would run for president of the United States.

LITTLE ROCK, AR -- Bill and Hillary Clinton emerged from the doors of the Old State House here this afternoon to greet thousands of their oldest supporters at the site where almost 20 years earlier the governor of Arkansas announced he would run for president.

Clinton said the challenges the current administration is dealing with are the same he faced when he moved into the White House.  But the economic climate now is worse than at any time he was president.

"Now the big challenge to our perfect union once again is a terrible economic crisis, more different, and deeper and more difficult than the one I faced," Clinton said. "Another young president is facing similar challenges ... underlying those challenges is the same old debate about whether government is the problem or we need smart government and a changing economy working together to create the opportunities of tomorrow."

Clinton advisers and staff descended on Little Rock this weekend to celebrate the 20-year anniversary of his decision to seek the White House.  On Friday, a panel of Clinton's top campaign advisers, including campaign manager James Carville, discussed their tumultuous road to the White House. Saturday night, many of the former staffer and supporters gathered for a reception on the grounds of the Clinton Presidential Library.

"I got my start in national politics with President Clinton," said Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who worked his way to become Clinton's political director.  "I wouldn't be the mayor of the city of Chicago, I wouldn't be a congressman, I wouldn't have been chief of staff for President Obama if it wasn't for the journey I joined."

The scene today mimicked campaign rallies Clinton held while seeking the presidency.  Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop” – the theme song of his run in 1992 – played while he took the podium.  He shook hands and greeted supporters on the rope line for more than an hour after the event.

While the former president critiqued the “anti-government strategy” from Republicans and offered ideas for improving the nation’s struggling economy, he remained largely reflective and thankful to his wife and the people in Arkansas who helped him win the White House.

"I've had a great time these last 10 years being a has-been and watching Hillary be a senator, run for president, be Secretary of State,” Clinton said.  “When we met many, many years ago - 40 plus to be exact - I thought she was the most gifted person of my generation.  I still feel that way.”

Many in the crowd sported signs from the Clinton-Gore ticket of the early 1990s. 

Harvey Joe Sanner of Des Arc, Ark., could point to the exact spot he shook then candidate Clinton’s hand after his announcement on Oct. 3, 1991.

“He had such a great message,” Sanner remembers.  “We’ve lost a lot of ground in this country.”