In the 2012 presidential campaign, Bill Clinton proved his value as a surrogate. And it’s something rare in American politics: a popular energetic former president. This came with obvious partisan advantages.
Clinton is a rare figure in contemporary American politics, especially compared to previous chief executives. George W Bush may have been the healthiest President ever, but he isn’t particularly popular. His father lost reelection. Ronald Reagan was popular when he left the White House at 77, so age and impending Alzheimer’s meant he would depart the public eye. Carter lost reelection, as did Ford. Nixon resigned in disgrace. LBJ died five years after leaving office. JFK and FDR died in office. Truman and Hoover were both wildly unpopular when they left the White House.
The only former President whose popularity was comparable to Clinton’s was Eisenhower. But Ike was 70 when he left the presidency, and would die eight years later, just after the inauguration of his former Vice-President.
Obama has a good chance of following in Clinton’s footsteps. It’s possible that he’ll leave the White House as unpopular as Truman or Bush. But if his approval rating remains at 52 percent at the end of his term, he could be a powerful surrogate for the party for decades to come, thanks to his speaking abilities and historic status. It’s possible that the next Democratic presidential nominee will be significantly older than Obama was in 2008 (and likely older than Obama will be in 2016), but it won’t be as important to follow in his and Bill Clinton’s footsteps, when the party is already likely to be two popular former presidents as campaign surrogates for the next few political cycles.
The Republicans who will have a greater incentive to choose among the youngest generation of political leaders. This could be an advantage for younger potential Republican presidents like Kelly Ayotte, Paul Ryan, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and Bobby Jindal. Another Reagan won’t be an effective former president.