President Obama was not Election Day’s only big winner this year. In fact, his victory did more than cement four more years of Democratic control. It confirmed that we have many, many more years of Bill Clinton.
Over a decade removed from public office, Clinton was invaluable to Democrats’ efforts in 2012, galvanizing audiences across the country. He established himself as one of the most durable figures in contemporary politics and set himself up to have considerable influence for years to come. Obama won the Presidency in 2012, but Clinton may have won a legacy.
Clinton’s largest and most noticeable contribution was on the campaign trail, where he delivered vivacious stump speeches praising Obama and ripping into the GOP. The former President may have even upstaged his Democratic successor at certain points, including the Democratic National Convention. In his keynote address, Clinton delivered a powerful endorsement of Obama while meticulously pointing out flaws in Romney’s plans. It was widely considered to be the best speech of the convention.
Donald T. Phillips, author of The Clinton Charisma: A Legacy of Leadership, saw Clinton’s efforts as illustrative of his talents as a persuader and politician. “Clinton happens to really shine in the spotlight,” Phillips said in an interview with The Politic. “He’s good at taking messages and making them simple so that people understand what he’s talking about.” Obama is clearly in agreement: he joked to an audience in St. Petersburg, Florida that he should appoint Bill Clinton his Secretary of Explaining Stuff.
Commentators across the political spectrum posited that Clinton brought a compassion that was largely missing from Obama’s leadership style. Said Michael Takiff, author of A Complicated Man: The Life of Bill Clinton as Told by Those Who Know Him, “Clinton has this famous empathy. People believe that Clinton really understands their problems intimately. Obama has trouble of convincing people of that. Obama’s policies are similar, but he didn’t have that same humanity. Clinton has that asset.”
Although Clinton has a long history of success on the political stage, he has a new ability to speak his mind now that he is out of office. According to Phillips, “[Clinton] doesn’t have to be muzzled anymore. When he was President he had to be careful and was in the middle of the road about what he said. He was a diplomat and a politician, and didn’t want to lose votes. Now, he can say exactly what he wants to say. A lot of people really like that.”
This year, Clinton put his talents to work. And it was work. He headlined 37 events for the President, including nine in the last weekend before Election Day. Including his contributions to dozens of congressional candidate campaigns, Clinton attended about 100 events in all. In one car ride on the way to the airport, he recorded forty automated messages on behalf of various Democratic congressional candidates.
Clinton’s value, however, wasn’t limited to working the podium. He had an important advisory role as well. Behind the scenes, Clinton was in close contact with Obama as well as David Axelrod, the chief strategist of the president’s 2012 campaign. He also helped facilitate a shift in the campaign’s portrayal of Republican challenger Mitt Romney from an inauthentic flip-flopper to that of a strict right-wing conservative.
In a big way, one of the biggest beneficiaries was Clinton himself. Stephen Skowronek, a political science professor at Yale University, noted that, after their terms are over, Presidents may be able to help secure their legacy through the achievements of their successors. “Clinton presided over a period of peace and prosperity, and having him endorse Obama’s course as the path back is valuable to both [men],” Skowronek said. “It gives Obama political legitimacy, and it allows Clinton to erase any bad memories of his official failures.”
Clinton also gains from being in the public spotlight and being a part of the national conversation. “Clinton loves being loved,” Takiff noted. “He loves people, the love of people, and the spotlight. He enjoys basking in the warmth of admiration.” All of this amounts to a Clinton comeback — further validation of his durability as a popular figure. According to Phillips, Clinton is more popular now than he was when he finished his second term as president. This is no easy task, seeing as he left office with the highest end-of-term approval rating for a President since World War II at 65 percent.
“He’s a very active person, and was always ‘out there.’ It’s part of his personality,” said Phillips. “Now that he’s not the President and doesn’t have something to run for meant something was missing from his life. He’s naturally active, a mark of a lot of great leaders.”
Clinton’s prominence is especially remarkable when compared to the recent history of former Presidents. In both 2008 and 2012, Republican candidates did their best to disassociate with George W. Bush, their immediate Republican predecessor. In 2000, Al Gore distanced himself from Clinton — the very same man who pundits are now hailing as a key contributor to the Obama victory.
Of course, having a former President attend rallies and give speeches is not without precedent. Reagan did so for the first George Bush in 1988. But the intensity and scope of Clinton’s role reached new heights. After going through the list of every Presidential predecessor since Franklin D. Roosevelt, Takiff concurred: “I think Clinton is really unusual. I don’t know if there’s a parallel I can think of.”
What might the Clinton resurgence mean for the next four years? In the short term, it may embolden Obama to take a tougher stance against Congressional Republicans. On the campaign trail, the President frequently praised Clinton’s ability to extract concessions from House Republicans. Now that has he won a second term, Obama likely hopes to achieve the same thing.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if Obama did more things like Clinton now, such as being tougher on Republicans,” Phillips commented. “They are more friendly now than they’ve ever been, so I wouldn’t be surprised if Obama starts to look to Clinton for advice.” Clinton is on top of the political world right now. He has great standing at home and abroad, has shown a passion for public speaking, and will likely counsel President Obama over the next four years. Moreover, his comeback undoubtedly aids his wife Hillary if, despite her comments to the contrary, she decides to run for the Presidency in 2016.
For better or worse, the old Democratic saying seems to hold true: It’s all about the Clintons.
Zachary Plyam is a freshman in Calhoun College.