When Bill Clinton steps onstage at the Democratic convention in Philadelphia Tuesday, it will be an extraordinary moment. The former Arkansas governor and two-term president, who entered the White House by revitalizing the Democratic Party and offering voters a “third way” for liberalism, will have a chance to assert himself in a campaign he has spent largely on the sidelines.
His task is to vouch for Hillary Clinton’s trustworthiness, define her as a change agent, and unify a party still split between supporters of Clinton and Bernie Sanders. But let’s be clear: He will also be auditioning to become the nation’s “first gentleman.”
This is unprecedented territory. An ex-president has never had a spouse run for president. And Bill Clinton, a man, will play a public role subordinate to his wife’s. In his first presidential campaign, in 1992, Clinton said his election would give voters “two for the price of one.” Two months ago, Hillary Clinton promised Americans that if she won the White House she would put Bill Clinton “in charge of revitalizing the economy” and bringing back jobs to economically hard-hit regions. The former president sounded game. “I like this economic business,” he coyly told NBC News.
Yet almost as soon as she raised the idea, critics pounced. “The president of the United States has an actual job to create jobs, create wealth, create take home pay,” former Speaker Newt Gingrich said. “That’s Hillary’s job if she wants to be president. That’s not the first spouse’s job.” Citing what he called “the worst economic deal in history,” the North American Free Trade Agreement, Donald Trump questioned why Hillary Clinton would “put her husband in charge of the economy.”
Hillary Clinton’s proposal, seemingly uttered in an offhand way during a campaign event in Kentucky, generated more heat than praise. The media raised questions about Bill Clinton’s marital infidelities, about how he would coordinate his White House role with Hillary Clinton’s formal economic advisers, and about how Hillary would defend NAFTA from attacks by rival candidates. Within a few days her campaign said, essentially, that nothing was set in stone and backtracked on the idea of Bill Clinton as economic czar.
Heading into tonight’s speech, Bill Clinton’s White House role remains a giant question mark that Hillary Clinton’s campaign has not fully confronted.
By recalling how Eleanor Roosevelt and Hillary Clinton handled the job, however, Bill Clinton could learn much about the potential to transform the role of presidential spouse as well as its political pitfalls.
The only two times in history when presidential spouses held formal administration appointments — Eleanor Roosevelt as assistant director of the Office of Civilian Defense (1941-1942) and Hillary Clinton as chair of the Health Care Task Force (1993) — underscore both the benefits of a presidential spouse in a policymaking role and the downsides.
Eleanor Roosevelt’s official actions at the home defense agency, where she was responsible for running volunteer participation, helped ensure that the government and citizens would continue to focus on improving lives at home through “social defense,” providing better housing, childcare, nutrition advice, and health care. Her efforts inspired and influenced FDR’s Four Freedoms and Economic Bill of Rights addresses. As assistant director she helped force economic and social equality onto the nation’s war mobilization agenda.
Similarly, without Hillary Clinton’s failed effort to enact health care reform, Obamacare might never have become law. Her mistakes showed the Obama White House how to win support from key industries (hospitals, pharmaceutical companies, insurers) and frame health care as an economic imperative rather than primarily as a societal right. Both Roosevelt and Clinton’s time in their posts left marks on policy debates that outlived their husbands’ administrations.
Still, both episodes reveal why a decision to give a presidential spouse a formal policy role is so fraught. Eleanor Roosevelt’s critics resented having the president’s wife lead the effort to mobilize millions of female volunteers for progressive causes in the throes of war mobilization. Derided as a wartime New Deal and lambasted as a threat to national security and family life, Eleanor Roosevelt’s efforts to invigorate social liberalism before and after Pearl Harbor produced a fierce backlash.
When news broke in early February 1942 that Eleanor Roosevelt had put her friend Mayris Chaney on the government payroll at $4,600 a year to teach dancing to children and raise their morale, the first lady became, as one columnist wrote, the “most discussed [person] in” America. The revelation called into question “the propriety of what the president’s wife is doing and saying about civilian defense and particularly her belief that it extends to various social welfare activities that ordinarily would [not] be associated with civilian defense.”
Eleanor Roosevelt was accused of using the government to promote immoral behavior and transgress gender norms and family values. “Voters place a man in office,” a California woman chastised the first lady. “You better spend your time in the kitchen … and leave a man’s job to a man,” a West Virginian scolded her. By month’s end, the first lady had resigned her OCD post, and it would be 50 years before another presidential spouse took on a formal policymaking role in any administration.
Bill Clinton’s two-for-one offer stoked its own gender-infused backlash even before he entered the Oval Office. Roger Stone, a longtime Republican consultant who is reportedly still close to Donald Trump, told the New York Times in 1992 that Hillary Clinton was “grating, abrasive and boastful. There’s a certain familiar order of things, and the notion of a coequal couple in the White House is a little offensive to men and women.”
These complaints did not stop President Clinton from tapping the first lady as chair of the White House health care task force in 1993. But the appointment made Hillary Clinton an even greater lightning rod for critics opposed to the administration’s agenda and offended that a president’s wife was given a big policy portfolio. Her subsequent failure to pass health care legislation, especially critics’ assertion that “Hillarycare” was hatched in secret by an unelected first lady hostile to Congress and the media, ultimately confined her to more traditional functions, such as hosting state dinners, for the rest of the administration.
Both Eleanor Roosevelt and Hillary Clinton left their posts in reaction to nationwide outcries that their un-American actions had subverted traditional values. Their experiences as official appointees offer cautionary tales of the cultural limits of what is permissible for a presidential spouse to do. The question for the Clintons now is whether society has become more willing to accept a formal policymaking role for a presidential spouse. The reaction to Hillary Clinton’s two-for-the-price-of-one proposal in May, in addition to the historical popular skepticism about giving presidential spouses public policy roles, suggests that Bill Clinton will have a tough sales job ahead if he is to help his wife revitalize the American economy.
Matthew Dallek, an associate professor at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management, is author of “Defenseless Under the Night: The Roosevelt Years and the Origins of Homeland Security.”