PHILADELPHIA ― Hillary Clinton isn’t the only one hoping to make history this year. Should the Democratic nominee succeed in becoming the first female president, Bill Clinton would also have an unprecedented opportunity to reshape the role of presidential spouse ― a ceremonial position that traditionally involves hosting duties at the White House as well as serving as advocate for a choice domestic policy.
Whether the former president, who is known for his love of the spotlight, is able to play second fiddle to his wife, however, remains unclear.
His temper and outbursts created numerous headaches during both of her presidential campaigns. Last month, he stepped in it once more with a quixotic decision to meet privately with U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch during the height of an FBI investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email practices at the State Department ― setting off complaints from Republicans and Democrats alike.
But Democrats gathered for their party convention in Philadelphia this week did not seem worried about potential drama or policy fights within the presidential couple. They embraced the idea of an experienced former president, or first gentleman, as someone who would be able to guide and advise his wife when called upon. Yet they made clear that, when it came to making big decisions, Hillary Clinton ought be the one in the driver’s seat.
“She is the president; he is not,” said Robert Voorheis of New York. “He has been there before. Should there be some talk back and forth? Yes. But she’s the commander in chief. She makes the decisions.”
Bill Clinton stepped into the job with his keynote address on Tuesday evening, a well-received speech laced with personal anecdotes about his marriage that was meant to reintroduce Hillary Clinton to the nation and lower her high unfavorability numbers.
“In the spring of 1971, I met a girl,” the former president began, telling the story of how he courted his future wife at Yale, of her passion and determination, and of their joint path toward the White House. The speech was solely focused on his wife and her accomplishments ― a position he will have to get comfortable with should they return to the White House.
Delegates who roamed the halls of Wells Fargo Arena, the site of the party convention, spoke wistfully about the 69-year-old former president even as they prepared to say goodbye to Barack Obama.
“When Bill Clinton left office, we were arguing about how to spend a budget surplus. Yeah, I got nostalgia for that,” said John Olsen of Georgia.
Even those critical of Clinton’s record on issues such as gay marriage ― he signed the controversial Defense of Marriage Act into law ― had good things to say about his presidency.
“Because of those mistakes, I think it helped Obama to have an easier time in crossing that bridge to full marriage equality. I think he did a good job overall,” said Voorheis, who attended the convention with his husband.
The lasting goodwill toward his tenure, however, did not entirely dispel worries over his potential to cause trouble in a Hillary Clinton administration.
“Inevitably there will be something. I’m hoping he has learned to think before he makes a move like that again,” added Voorheis, referring to Bill Clinton’s meeting with Lynch.
Others had confidence in Hillary Clinton’s ability to keep her husband in check.
“I think she can control him,” said Michael Sabatino of New York.
But on the question of his influence in the White House, most delegates said he should be concerned with standing behind his wife first and foremost, no matter what kind of duties he may ultimately take on.
“He’s been through it. I would see his influence ideally being a supportive spouse,” Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) said.
Olsen echoed the sentiment, adding that it is inevitable a partner would carry some of the weight in any marriage.
“Listen, any spouse, my wife, has an awful lot of influence on me,” he told HuffPost. “Anyone, whether man or woman, who says the spouse doesn’t have influence is crazy. At the end of the day, it’s always the president’s decision. But there’s nothing like having someone to give you a pat on the back or a kick in the butt. And only a wife or a husband could do that.”