Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

What is Bill Clinton up to?

By Michael Duffy, Special to CNN
updated 10:14 AM EDT, Fri June 8, 2012
Ex-President Bill Clinton, at the Clinton Global Initiative meeting, stirred waves this week with his remarks on the 2012 campaign.
Ex-President Bill Clinton, at the Clinton Global Initiative meeting, stirred waves this week with his remarks on the 2012 campaign.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Bill Clinton is riding high in the opinion polls, with a 66% favorability rating
  • Michael Duffy says it's a sign that former presidents' popularity increases after White House
  • He says some have suggested Clinton's comments have been an effort to undermine Obama
  • Duffy: Clinton is more likely acting as a campaign consultant, urging point of view on Obama

Editor's note: Michael Duffy is an executive editor at Time and the co-author with Nancy Gibbs of "The Presidents Club: Inside the World's Most Exclusive Fraternity."

(CNN) -- The interesting news in the latest CNN/ORC International poll that Bill Clinton is pulling a 66% favorable rating among Americans suggests the 42nd president has the power to help or hurt Barack Obama as the 2012 campaign enters its final five months.

The question is: Which has he been doing more of lately?

The poll was a reminder that Americans tend to be more forgiving of their presidents over time, no matter how long they served, which party they hailed from or how voters may have felt about a commander in chief at the moment he stepped down.

Michael Duffy
Michael Duffy

Jimmy Carter (54%), George Herbert Walker Bush (59%) and Clinton, who have been out of office between 31 and 11 years, all earned personal approval ratings north of 50%; only George W. Bush, who stepped down three years ago, is below 50%. But even his rating has improved since he returned to private life. Being an ex-president is almost always good for your approval rating.

Photos: Secrets of the Presidents Club, from Truman to Obama

The CNN poll appears at the moment when Clinton has once again been playing an outsize role on the public stage, and many have suggested all sorts of theories and reasons for maneuvering. Some have read in his comments about Mitt Romney (he called his business record "sterling") a desire to undercut Obama or set the table for a run by his wife, Hillary, in 2016. This analysis gained momentum when Clinton told CNBC that economics demanded that the Bush tax cuts should be extended temporarily. That comment led Clinton to apologize.

Bill Clinton's comments on Bush tax cuts
Is Clinton a good surrogate for Obama?
Clinton: 'Sorry' for tax comments
Insiders: Clinton remarks 'off message'

But the evidence doesn't really support a campaign of sabotage. A simpler explanation for Clinton's capering -- and one that better fits Clinton's record -- is that he is a permanent political consultant. And his "candidate" isn't paying close attention to his advice.

Clinton is trying to change the debate in the presidential campaign from one about the past to one about the future. Fighting about who did what in the 1980s, Clinton thinks, is a sure loser. Better to focus on who has the better plan going forward. (Remember the chorus of his campaign song? "Don't stop thinking about tomorrow.") So he has taken his approach to the airwaves.

It is easy to forget that Clinton has differed with the White House in the past about how to frame a political race. In 2010, working through Vice President Joe Biden, he urged Obama to make the case that the president had done a number of things to improve the lives of Americans in his first two years and suggested the president campaign on his record. But the White House resisted this approach, fearing the stimulus and health care reform were not popular enough to brag about and instead tried to make the Republican agenda the issue. Clinton disagreed but (mostly) kept his mouth shut about it. He doesn't seem willing to bite his tongue now.

Photos: Clinton's last days in office

Clinton isn't the first president to meddle in presidential politics after his own presidency ended. So great was his dislike of Dwight Eisenhower that Harry Truman couldn't stay out of the 1952 race and even campaigned against Ike that fall. Richard Nixon made life unpleasant for Gerald Ford in the 1976 Republican primary (and seemed determined to undercut George Bush in 1992, to Clinton's benefit). But Clinton's grudge isn't personal; it's about how best to mount and run a campaign.

How much of his personal popularity Clinton will spend to win this argument is unclear, but nearing age 66, as the new poll shows, the former president has time to earn it back.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 3:18 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Frida Ghitis says as violence claims three U.S. doctors, the temptation is to despair, but aid to Afghanistan has made it a much better place
updated 2:33 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says in California, Asian-Americans are against the use of racial criteria in public colleges.
updated 2:44 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Heidi Schlumpf says if the Pope did tell an Argentinian woman married to a divorced man that she could take Communion, it may signify a softening of church rules on the divorced and sacraments
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Norcross, Georgia, Chief of Police Warren Summers says the new law that allows guns in bars, churches and schools will have unintended dangerous consequences.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Mel Robbins says social media is often ruled by haters, and people can be brutally honest.
updated 12:44 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Mike Downey says the golf purists can take a hike; the game needs radical changes to win back fans and players.
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Robert Hickey says most new housing development is high-end, catering to high-earners.
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Alexander Motyl says as Russian President Putin snarled at Ukraine, his foreign minister was signing a conciliatory accord with the West. Whatever the game, the accord is a major stand down by Russia
updated 8:29 AM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Les Abend says at every turn, the stowaway teen defied the odds of discovery and survival. What pilot would have thought to look for a person in the wheel well?
updated 7:04 AM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Q & A with artist Rachel Sussman on her new book of photographs, "The Oldest Living Things in the World."
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Martin Blaser says the overuse of antibiotics threatens to deplete our bodies of "good" microbes, leaving us vulnerable to an unstoppable plague--an "antibiotic winter"
updated 1:37 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
John Sutter asks: Is it possible to eat meat in modern-day America and consider yourself an environmentalist without being a hypocrite?
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Sally Kohn notes that Meb Keflezighi rightly was called an American after he won the Boston Marathon, but his status in the U.S. once was questioned
updated 8:56 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Denis Hayes and Scott Denman say on this Earth Day, the dawn of the Solar Age is already upon us and the Atomic Age of nuclear power is in decline
updated 4:36 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Retired Coast Guard officer James Loy says a ship captain bears huge responsibility.
updated 1:08 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Peter Bergen says the latest strikes are part of an aggressive U.S. effort to target militants, including a bomb maker
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Cynthia Lummis and Peter Welch say 16 agencies carry out national intelligence, and their budgets are top secret. We need to know how they are spending our money.
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama knows more than anyone that he has much at stake in the midterm elections.
updated 8:55 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Eric Sanderson says if you really want to strike a blow for the environment--and your health--this Earth Day, work to get cars out of cities and create transportation alternatives
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Bruce Barcott looks at the dramatic differences in marijuana laws in Colorado and Louisiana
updated 4:47 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery supports the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
updated 2:17 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
updated 1:52 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
updated 2:25 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
updated 6:26 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
updated 8:50 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT