“Part of it is that Bill Clinton is, at this point, a sympathetic story and has always been a likeable guy,” says Eric Schultz of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee. “But his appeal right now has to do with the fact that voters associate him with a time of prosperity. You can’t say that about either George W. Bush or, unfortunately, Barack Obama.”
It turns out that the quality that made Obama special as a presidential candidate—his descended-from-the-clouds, antipolitical, sui generis image—is now making it easier for run-of-the-mill Democratic politicians to separate themselves from his presidency. According to Democratic polls, Democratic Senate candidates are doing much better in the horse race of the campaign than Obama is doing in overall popularity in most states. In Missouri, for example, Obama’s approval rating is 36 percent, but Democratic Senate candidate Robin Carnahan is only a couple of points behind Republican Roy Blunt.
So into the top-of-the-ticket, presidential-level campaign void has (happily) stepped Bubba, as charming as ever, as sharp as ever at stating his case to voters. Plans are still “up in the air, but expect to see him out quite a bit,” says his spokesman, Matt McKenna.
As a Democratic campaign operative who spoke on background says, “Somebody’s got to get out and make the case nationally for a Democratic Congress. And who is that going to be? Not Nancy Pelosi or Harry Reid. If you’ve got Clinton, you’ve got to use him.”
And when Clinton is “out” there, don’t expect him to fill his speeches with personal praise of Barack Obama. As a lawyer and salesman, Clinton knows that touting Obama as The One is a nonstarter given the president’s plummeting job-approval numbers. But permit me a moment of Machiavellian thinking to suggest that Clinton loves to be in a situation in which he has to make the Democrats’ case by damning with faint praise a man whose campaign he once dismissed as a “fairy tale.”
I always love listening to Bill Clinton. If you listen carefully, you can see all the gears in motion: he makes himself clear to people who bother to take him seriously. So what is he saying? That this president has “done a better job than he has gotten credit for so far.” (Which is not the same thing as saying that Obama has done a good job.) And: “All elections are about the future, so what is the alternative?” (Pay no attention to Obama, look at those scary Republicans!) And: “Give us two more years—two more years until another election. If we fail, you can throw us all out.” (Hillary will then be free to pick up the pieces!)
One other thing to note. Both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama love to play golf—just not with each other.
Howard Fineman is also the author of The Thirteen American Arguments: Enduring Debates That Define and Inspire Our Country.