What kind of first gentleman would Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonThe Memo: Powell ended up on losing side of GOP fight A pandemic of hyper-hypocrisy is infecting American politics Is Wall Street serving its own interests by supporting China's? MORE be?
That’s the question on the minds of many as Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonTrump defends indicted GOP congressman GOP lawmaker says he expects to be indicted over FBI investigation Why it's time for conservatives to accept the 2020 election results and move on MORE seeks to become the first woman to ever hold the Oval Office.
The swapped roles of power and gender could create a tricky dynamic for the former president, partly relating to the trials and personalities surrounding the dynastic power couple, which has spent most of the last three decades in the public spotlight.
Bill Clinton would almost certainly want a prominent role in his wife’s administration, but doing so would be fraught with political risk, experts say, particularly given his fame and outsize personality.
“There is a real fear that his celebrity status would loom large over the Hillary Clinton White House,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political scientist at the University of Houston. “There could be the perception that President Hillary Clinton could not handle the job without her former president husband coming to the rescue — that she can’t do it alone, because she’s a woman.
“They want to promote the notion that Hillary Clinton is more than capable on her own.”
What specific function Bill Clinton would play in the White House remains to be seen, but it seems likely to be economy-related. In May, Hillary Clinton suggested his focus would be jobs-related — “In charge of revitalizing the economy, because, you know, he knows how to do it,” she said — but she hasn’t indicated how the task would be structured.
Bill Clinton, for his part, has been even more vague about his intentions, telling NBC News in May that he’d do “whatever I’m asked to do.”
“But,” he added, “I like this economic business.”
Still, it seems exceedingly unlikely that he’ll accede to playing the part usually given to first ladies: that of social hostess and ambassador to the public.
“I doubt if Bill will throw himself into the cultural roles that first ladies have traditionally filled, which means he’ll probably get some kind of policy portfolio,” said Justin Vaughn, political scientist at Boise State University. “What will be interesting to see is what happens when their preferences diverge. Bill won’t just be some staffer who serves at her pleasure.”
Having a former president in the White House could be a real asset for Hillary Clinton, giving her an informal chief counsel who knows firsthand what it’s like to wrestle with consequential decisions.
“You’ve got one of the most useful and experienced advocates in her own family,” Rottinghaus said. “There’s not a price you can put on that.”
Steven Schier, editor of “Postmodern Presidency: Bill Clinton’s Legacy in American Politics,” said the assets and liabilities the former president would bring to the White House in 2017 are the same as those he carried in 1993: He’s experienced, whip-smart and has a legendary ability to connect with voters across the political spectrum.
But he also has “low impulse control,” Schier said. And the test facing a Hillary Clinton administration would be to maintain a strategic balance that taps his strengths without outshining his wife — something that would risk undermining her own credibility with foreign leaders and with voters who might wonder whether the person they elected is actually the person in charge.
“If Bill and Hillary are side by side in the same room, all the attention’s going to be on Bill,” said Schier, a political scientist at Minnesota’s Carleton College. “Well, there’s a problem for President Hillary.”
A substantial policy role for the former president could backfire, just as it did when Hillary Clinton was tasked with healthcare reform in her husband’s first term.
Her role as chief promoter of the sweeping healthcare overhaul ended in abject failure. Lawmakers bristled at her hands-on role in a White House task force that drafted reform proposals, while Republicans and industry groups rallied public opposition by deriding the effort as “Hillarycare.”
“The role of political strategist is perhaps the most important and at the same time the least controversial since we all expect Bill to perform this duty,” said Seth McKee, a political scientist at Texas Tech University.
“What he cannot do, and I presume he won’t, is be a visible presence in any formal policymaking capacity. Hillary can’t afford to have him do this because public opinion would strongly shift against her.”
Pointing to Bill Clinton’s successes negotiating delicate deals with a GOP-controlled Congress in the 1990s, McKee predicted the former president’s focus would be to help the new administration seek similar agreements “in arguably the most polarized political environment since the Civil War.”
There are other concerns in having Bill Clinton return to the White House.
His tenure was tarred by his affair with Monica Lewinsky, as well as broader accusations of womanizing, which could complicate Hillary Clinton’s approach to women’s issues like sexual assault, experts say.
His presence also plays into perceptions that the Clinton campaign is tethered to the past. That was a common theme at last week’s GOP convention in Cleveland, where Republicans were relentless in portraying Hillary Clinton as a musty establishment candidate who can’t bring change like Republican presidential nominee Donald TrumpDonald TrumpTrump defends indicted GOP congressman House to vote Thursday on holding Bannon in contempt Youngkin calls for investigation into Loudoun County School Board amid sexual assault allegations MORE.
“Hillary Clinton’s greatest problem is that she’s running for a third term for the president,” Rep. Tom Cole, an influential Oklahoma Republican, told MSNBC during the convention. “She is a status quo candidate. [Trump] is a change candidate ... in a period where you want change.”
Additionally, the former first couple has sometimes struggled to stay astride a liberal base that’s shifted to the left since the Clintons vacated the White House. Some of Bill Clinton’s legislative accomplishments — particularly trade deals, criminal justice reforms and the Defense of Marriage Act — have infuriated the same liberals Hillary Clinton is now seeking to win over.
Those tensions were on full display in April when Bill Clinton was confronted by Black Lives Matter protesters critical of his 1994 crime bill. Never one to back down, the former president defended the law with a fiery rebuke.
“You are defending the people who killed the lives you say matter,” he said.
Schier said such episodes highlight “an awkward time for Bill Clinton” because of the shifting norms within his party. He predicted there would be “delicate conversations” between the former first couple over “things Hillary Clinton will want him to downplay.”
“Now, whether you can get Bill Clinton to downplay anything,” Schier added, “is another question.”