Bill Clinton is enjoying a renaissance. Demand for the former president on the campaign trail is burgeoning as Democrats look for someone with star power to give them a boost in this fall's midterm elections. Party strategists say Clinton's lure is especially powerful because of the relatively low job-approval ratings of President Obama in many swing states and districts, where voters are upset by his brand of activist government and big spending. As a result, Clinton is considered a larger draw than Obama in conservative and centrist regions, such as the South and rural areas.
Clinton, who turns 64 in August, retains a special mystique as the Democrat who won two presidential terms in the 1990s after a long dry spell for his party. He has, in fact, recovered from a down period when he created a sharp backlash by criticizing Obama in the 2008 primaries. The bitterness seemed to deepen when Obama defeated Clinton's wife, Hillary, for the Democratic nomination, but now harmony reigns, at least most of the time. There was a brief dustup in the past week when Clinton endorsed Andrew Romanoff, the former speaker of the Colorado House of Representatives, in the Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate in Colorado. This came despite Obama's endorsement of the incumbent, Michael Bennet. The nomination will be determined in a primary election next month. But White House strategists say there are no hard feelings toward Clinton because Romanoff backed Hillary Clinton in 2008 and the former president is being loyal to a longtime ally. [See who gives the most to Bennet's campaign.]
Democratic pollster Geoff Garin, who advised Hillary Clinton's campaign, says Bill still has a powerful appeal despite his past travails, both political and personal, because of his charisma and personality. "He's always been a rock star," Garin says. One reason for his rebirth is that his politics look so good in retrospect. For example, he ended his presidency with a budget surplus, while Obama is racking up historic deficits. Many moderate Democrats yearn for the days of a buoyant national economy and comparative fiscal discipline.
The latest example of Clinton's clout came in mid-June when he helped incumbent Blanche Lincoln win a tough Democratic senatorial primary in Clinton's home state of Arkansas. Earlier, he helped Democrat Mark Critz win a special House election in rural Pennsylvania. Clinton has also campaigned for embattled Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, and is planning to appear soon for Reps. Sander Levin of Michigan and Richard Neal of Massachusetts. [See who is donating to Reid's campaign.]
Despite Clinton's obvious character flaws, as illustrated by the Monica Lewinsky sex-and-lies scandal, there is a certain nostalgia in Democratic circles for his political savvy, his pragmatic views, and his commitment to the middle class. "With Clinton you always knew what he'd fight for 'til the last dog died," says a former Clinton adviser. "It's hard to tell with Obama."
There was an initial concern in Washington that the former president would be meddlesome and intrusive in dealing with the Obama administration, especially since his wife was named secretary of state. But those concerns have faded as Secretary Clinton works ever more closely and smoothly with the White House. In fact, she is enjoying a resurgence too, with widespread praise for her performance as the nation's chief diplomat. And the Clintons appear to be serene about their lives. "Both of them seem perfectly comfortable with what they're doing now," says Mike McCurry, who was Bill Clinton's White House press secretary.
Finally, Clinton knows when and how to make news. He showed his PR savvy last week when he gave a telephone interview to the New York Times extolling Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan's work for him when she was a White House legal adviser in the mid-1990s. "She was unfailingly meticulous in trying to determine what the law actually is and what the facts actually were," Clinton said. "She never let whatever feelings she had get in the way of doing that. I think she can be fair." His comments helped ease fears that Kagan might be a liberal activist. [See a slide show of 10 things that could influence Kagan on the bench.]
Adding to Clinton's luster are his continuing humanitarian efforts. Most recently, he has served as a high-profile advocate, along with former President George W. Bush, for rebuilding Haiti after the earthquake there on January 12. He visited that troubled country again, on a solo humanitarian mission, in mid-June. This week, he brought favorable attention to the U.S. soccer team (and himself) by cheering the squad to a key victory at the World Cup tournament in Pretoria, South Africa. He is also touring projects in Africa supported by his charitable foundation. Last year, he worked on tsunami relief in the Pacific with former President George H.W. Bush. [See photos of the earthquake in Haiti.]
Clinton is showing that a former chief executive can have a productive post-presidency and make a difference in people's lives. All this adds up to another leap forward for the familiar, gray-haired fellow who used to call himself the "comeback kid."
- See a slide show of Obama's 5 best cabinet secretaries.