Inviting Bill Clinton on campaign trail carries risk, reward for Obama

President Clinton is willing to do whatever he can to get President Obama reelected, according to his former aides.

It’s just a matter of whether Obama wants the help.

Bringing Clinton on the campaign trail could do wonders for Obama’s appeal among disenfranchised blue-collar voters and reluctant donors, strategists say. But it could also pose risks for Obama, who could be overshadowed by the effusive former president.

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“President Obama would be wise [to use him], and I’m sure he would welcome President Clinton as one of the great campaigners alive today, and still one of the most popular Democrats in the country,” said Lanny Davis, former special counsel to Clinton and a columnist for The Hill.

The two Democratic presidents have a complicated relationship dating back to the epic primary battle between Obama and then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.). An outspoken advocate for his wife, Clinton defended her against Obama and criticized him for launching personal attacks.

The hatchet has long since been buried, advisers said, pointing to the visibly close relationship between Obama and his secretary of State.

Hillary Clinton does not plan to join Obama on the campaign trail this year because she doesn’t want to risk politicizing her role as the nation’s top diplomat, senior administration officials said last week. But the former first lady has dipped her toe into the political sphere on occasion, including calling out Rush Limbaugh during the contraception battle in early April for what she called a “verbal assault” on Georgetown Law student Sandra Fluke.

Her husband, meanwhile, has kept a low profile on political matters throughout the Republican presidential primary.

Clinton said last week that he had agreed to do three fundraisers with Obama. But beyond raising money, the question remains whether Clinton will have a major role as a surrogate for Obama or a public face for the campaign.

The Obama campaign and Clinton’s office did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

“It’s a shame that President Clinton hasn’t been used by President Obama and the Obama White House on a variety of issues that he could have been helpful on,” said one Democratic strategist with knowledge of the situation. “For reasons that are not apparent, he hasn’t been very well used.”

Recent polling suggests President Obama is doing better among independent voters and in swing states than he was just a few months ago. But he continues to struggle among white working-class voters and those without college degrees.

One aide in the Obama administration expected Clinton would play a substantial role in the reelection campaign, noting Clinton’s unmatched ability within the Democratic Party to convey a crisp economic message with emotion and sympathy.

Mitt Romney has also struggled with blue-collar voters during the primary. But Republicans have argued that the general election will be a referendum on Obama’s economy, and that voters who are struggling financially will undoubtedly come around to the GOP nominee.

“Clinton can certainly be helpful among some moderate voters, some ethnic groups, some for whom the biggest issue is the economy,” said Steve Rabinowitz, a former Clinton White House aide and a Democratic strategist. “For sure, he’ll play as prominent a role as the Obama campaign asks him to.”

Putting Clinton on the trail could also galvanize some Democrats who plan to vote for Obama anyway but have yet to lend a hand, said Rabinowitz.

“People who were Obama supporters to start but are still sitting on their wallets might open up for Clinton,” he said.

But giving Clinton a major role also adds an element to unpredictability for Obama’s political team, a group not known for any fondness for surprises. There’s also the risk that Clinton could steal the limelight from the man who is actually on the ballot.

When Clinton made an appearance in the White House briefing room to declare his support for a tax-cut compromise in December 2010 — almost 10 years after leaving office — Obama introduced Clinton and said he would “speak very briefly.” Obama excused himself a few minutes later to get to a Christmas party, but Clinton kept going solo, taking questions from the press for another 20 minutes.

Clinton also has a tendency to speak his mind, and criticized Obama in 2011 in his book Back to Work, charging Democrats and Obama with losing the messaging battle on economic issues in the lead-up to the 2010 midterm elections. He also recently defended the presumptive GOP nominee for rejecting a federal healthcare law similar to the one he implemented in his home state.

“I have some sympathy for Gov. Romney because he couldn’t have been nominated defending the Massachusetts law as a good model for the nation, because of where the Republican primary had gone,” Clinton told NBC’s Luke Russert last week.

When Clinton’s vice president, Al Gore, ran for president in 2000, Gore distanced himself from his former boss, whose reputation at the time was still blighted by the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Gore’s decision was questioned later, after he lost the election.

This time around, there is another element at play: Hillary Clinton, whom many Democrats hope will run again for president in 2016. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has joined the ranks of those calling for her to make another bid, but Clinton has suggested she has little interest in returning to politics.

“I’ve been there; I know what happens when you go through this decompression, after years of relentless, high-pressure activity,” Bill Clinton told NBC. “And I just think she needs to rest up, do some things she cares about, and whatever she decides to do, I’ll support.”

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