When Jimmy Carter delivered his video message to the Democratic National Convention yesterday, he did so as the second-longest serving ex-president of all time. By the end of this week, he will be the longest-serving, exceeding Herbert Hoover’s 31 years and 232 days out of office – and building a compelling record of humanitarian endeavor along the way.
But it is the former president appearing at the convention tonight – Bill Clinton – whose expanding ex-presidency threatens to steal the show. And not just from Carter, but from the incumbent president whose campaign he is aiming to bolster.
While Carter’s speech barely mentioned his own time as president, Clinton’s recent ad for the Obama campaign emphasizes exactly that. Looking straight into the camera, the ex-president deftly links the aims of the Obama administration – its emphasis on a strong middle class as the key to economic prosperity – with the achievements of his own. “That’s what happened when I was president,” Clinton reminds viewers – lest we should forget.
From Obama’s perspective, downplaying Carter’s largely unsuccessful single term might seem an obvious thing to do. But highlighting Clinton’s achievements is also a risky move. Being tied to a past administration can challenge a current president’s claim to independent leadership – witness the struggles of George H.W. Bush to step out from under the shadow of Ronald Reagan.
Yet Obama is not tied to the Clinton administration through any formal position. That he is willing to actively push the comparison is thus intriguing. Most likely, it suggests that any leadership concerns are secondary to getting re-elected right now. But it also points to something else – the rare structural positions in which both Clinton and Obama have found themselves over the past four years, and how their responses have elevated the “ex-presidency” to new heights.
Less than half of incoming presidents have entered office with a re-elected former president, of their own party, still on the public scene. Even fewer have had to face one still so active politically, and without other factors diminishing their immediate impact (the taint of Richard Nixon’s resignation, for example). With those in mind, it’s less than a third. And many of these cases involved a predecessor they had served as vice-president (or Secretary of State for an earlier era).
Excluding those, then we’re left with just seven other presidents who entered office with something like a “Clinton” on the scene: James K. Polk had Andrew Jackson (his political sponsor anyway). Ulysses S. Grant loomed large for Rutherford B. Hayes, James A. Garfield, and Chester Arthur. Calvin Coolidge may not have loomed, but was still relevant as Herbert Hoover entered office, as was Harry Truman when John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson came in. History thus provides little guidance for Obama on how to handle a predecessor like Clinton.
But it provides even less guidance for Clinton. None of these “successors” – with the exception of Hoover in 1932 – ran for re-election after serving a full first-term (whether by choice, political circumstance, or the result of an assassin’s bullet). And “Silent Cal” was, unsurprisingly, largely silent during Hoover’s 1932 reelection bid. Even the predecessors of former vice-presidents/Secretaries have not really given public aid in re-election bids. (Though they have not always been asked either. Reagan reportedly felt under-utilized in 1992, during the Bush reelection campaign).
These unusual positions, then, and Clinton and Obama’s responses to them, have fundamentally shaped the 2012 campaign. Clinton had already shown himself a willing campaigner for other Democrats even prior to Obama’s election. But Obama seemed to deal with Clinton’s public presence by actually expanding this role – giving Clinton specific policy and campaigning tasks as a way to keep him in check, to tie him to Obama’s goals and administration. But the tables have turned as Obama’s electoral position became less secure. Obama now wants to be tied to Clinton, and thus enhances the ex-president’s platform still further. By making Clinton the messenger, the Obama team hopes to capture the aura of a past administration, rather than be consumed by it.
Hence the significance of what Clinton chooses to say at the convention tonight. How well can he make a case that connects these separate administrations, and in such a way as to enhance the current president’s stature, not diminish it? Or to reformulate the critique of Republican Vice-Presidential candidate Paul Ryan, made last week at his own convention: the question is less whether Obama is running on his record or not; it is whether he can successfully “borrow” Clinton’s.
This all adds up to a pretty unique situation this time around, but the new role Clinton is forging could shape expectations of all future ex-presidents. It was Obama, of course, who gave us the “Office of the President Elect.” If Clinton’s efforts this year are successful, the “Office of the Ex-President” may soon be coming our way.
Emily J. Charnock is a doctoral candidate in Politics at the University of Virginia.