Bill Clinton's Role: Messenger-In-Chief

Bill Clinton's Role: Messenger-In-Chief
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Jim Young / Reuters

How will the former president spend his time in the White House if Hillary Clinton is elected?

If the former president’s Tuesday night speech at the Democratic National Convention is any guide, it appears that Bill Clinton will do exactly what presidential spouses have been doing for decades: he will push the administration’s political agenda forward by simplifying the message and widely dispatching it. He will engage groups outside Hillary Clinton’s core base of support. And he will tell Americans how hard his wife is working behind closed doors and how much she cares about policy and the people affected by it.

It’s a recipe for success, as survey experiments in my new book demonstrate, because spouses in the most recent three administrations have often been more effective on average than their vice presidential and presidential counterparts in attempts to persuade public opinion. Survey participants respond especially favorably to appeals from spouses when the question relates to presidential character, such as the notion that the president is compassionate, honest, or moral, measures on which Hillary Clinton could stand to improve before November. The White House and presidential campaigns understand the special dynamic between the public and the president’s spouse intuitively, and it is one of the reasons why presidential spouses—not vice presidents—have shouldered the majority of the communications burden surrogates are tasked with in recent years, as the figure shows.

Data from the White House Briefing Room websites.
Data from the White House Briefing Room websites.
Lauren A. Wright

But Bill Clinton may be particularly well-suited for the job of presidential spouse, a post that has become less ceremonial and more strategic over time. His dexterous yet accessible speaking style is legendary, and it was showcased Tuesday night in a speech laced with emotional high notes only the most talented orators can hit and few surrogates but a husband or a wife can execute in an authentic manner. Bill Clinton may also be able to enhance Hillary Clinton’s reputation among out-party members, as my recent research shows, and appears to make the most headway in this regard among Republican men, a group the Trump campaign has relied upon heavily.

President Clinton employed several important rhetorical strategies in his DNC speech Tuesday night that are commonly used by presidential spouses but are not usually accessible to presidents and candidates themselves. First, presidential spouses have an opportunity to stay positive. They typically don’t point fingers or vilify the administration’s political foes. Blaming adversaries is a tactical error that Hillary Clinton learned to avoid during her push for the Health Security Act in 1993, and that Bill Clinton made on in 2008 when he accused the Obama campaign of “playing the race card,” but that he sidestepped in his speech by focusing on Hillary Clinton’s strengths and accomplishments.

Presidential spouses also pursue initiatives that are perceived to be solutions to valence issues, but serve as favorable frames for more controversial items on the administration’s agenda. Mrs. Obama’s veterans initiative, Joining Forces, was promoted in concert with the president’s announcement to remove troops from Iraq in 2009. The topic of healthcare reform was a seamless presence in Mrs. Obama’s Let’s Move! speeches, a vehicle the administration used to highlight the holistic elements of the Affordable Care Act, such as preventative care. Bill Clinton’s attention will likely be focused on the economy, as the Clinton campaign has mentioned, an issue area in which he can claim broad expertise.

Presidential spouses also stay above the partisan fray. Not only have spouses been more popular than presidents and vice presidents in surveys since the 1990s, but their popularity is not as strongly predicted by the partisan affiliation of survey respondents, allowing them to somewhat transcend the party-based evaluations that politicians struggle to get past. Lady Bird Johnson famously spent time in the South campaigning for her husband in 1964 when he began losing ground among white voters. Southern Democrats objected to the Civil Rights Act and planned to punish President Johnson for it at the ballot box, but they identified with his wife’s Louisianan heritage and her desire to prevent the South from becoming “the whipping boy of the Democratic party.” As the most popular former President of the United States who garnered support from a wide range of constituencies in his own elections, Bill Clinton may be able connect with Independents and Republicans and spend time in parts of the country where Hillary Clinton isn’t performing well. Bill Clinton referred to this strategy in his DNC speech, when he said Hillary sent him to West Virginia during the primary, “where she knew we were going to lose, to look those coal miners in the eye and say I’m down here because Hillary sent me…”

Lastly, presidential spouses go personal. It cannot be overemphasized that the personal relationship a spouse has with the president or candidate likely makes them the most effective public messengers. When a spouse addresses the public, they bring the credibility and inside knowledge of the very closest person to the president or candidate to bear. Their messages may be perceived to be more genuine, more believable, or more reflective of the true desires, concerns, or beliefs of their partners than those coming from professional colleagues.

In the era of the permanent campaign, it’s not a viable option for presidential and candidate spouses to remain silent on the trail or in the White House, even if doing so would prevent mistakes. The mere geographic scope of national elections warrants the mobilization of every available surrogate in fundraising and GOTV efforts, and the involvement of family allows campaigns to be in more than one place at a time. Similarly, an all-hands-on-deck approach is required in the White House to occupy the large and prominent stage of the presidency and control the narrative against the tide of 24-hour news. Presidents also need help meeting public demand for a transparent and accessible administration, a demand that has been growing since Watergate and has coincided with a sharp decline in confidence in government institutions.

Paying close attention to what Bill Clinton and Melania Trump say on the trail, and to whom they say it, is a valuable exercise in ascertaining campaign strategy and solving an important, albeit small, piece of the general election puzzle. There is no better indication of the role the president’s spouse will play in the White House than the role they are already occupying on the campaign trail.

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Decades Of Bill Clinton At The DNC

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