Bill Clinton is almost certainly the most popular person in American politics. A new NBC-Wall Street Journal poll showed that 56 percent of people have a positive view of the former president while just 26 percent hold a negative one. That makes him more popular than George W. Bush (35/39) and President Obama (44/43). It also makes him more popular than his wife; 44 percent of Americans have a positive view of Hillary Clinton while 36 percent have a negative one.
Bill Clinton's popularity is no idle discussion. With Hillary Clinton moving inexorably toward a presidential run in 2016, how her husband will be used on the campaign trail -- particularly after the disastrous results of his forays into the 2008 campaign -- is a critically important question for her campaign-in-waiting.
Views on what the best role is for Bill Clinton are divided within Democratic circles.
"The campaigner in chief is always more an asset than anything," said Jef Pollock, a New York-based Democratic pollster. "He’s good for money, he’s good for strategy, and he’s good for turnout. That’s the holy trinity of good campaigning."
But, Dave Beattie, a Florida-based Democratic pollster, had a different view on how Bill Clinton should be used. "In a campaign, he should not be used to attack opponents, but to paint the picture of a more equitable economy that reinforces voters' existing perception of his strength as president," argued Beattie.
Bill Clinton as attack dog was a formula that just didn't work when his wife ran for president seven years ago. Time and again, he got himself and his wife into trouble with impolitic remarks.
There was the time he compared Obama's strength in South Carolina to Jesse Jackson's victories in the state in 1984 and 1988.
And the time he said that Obama's entire campaign was a "big fairy tale."
And the time when Clinton said that Obama had played the "race card" on him.
That slew of bad press led to a deep dive in Clinton's approval ratings in 2008 -- as you can see in this long-term trend chart via Gallup.
Since Hillary's campaign ended, Bill's numbers have been on a clear upward trend -- as evidenced by the new NBC-WSJ numbers.
But the 2008 campaign should be instructive as the Clinton camp weighs what to do with Bill Clinton. The more political he looks -- and the more on-the-attack he is -- the more his numbers dip. So, while Clinton might look like a no-brainer as a constant presence on the campaign trail in 2016, it might not be so simple. Clinton as economic surrogate and explainer in chief -- a role similar to the one Beattie suggests above -- might be his best fit, since he did roughly that for President Obama's 2012 campaign to much success. A reprisal of his 2008 campaign role would be a far worse idea.
Paul Begala, a longtime Clinton hand, thinks the debate over Bill's role is both eternal and pointless. "Every few months some over-thinker in my party -- or perhaps in the press -- kills a bunch of pixels on this question: 'Is Bill Clinton an asset or a liability?' I feel like Bill Murray in 'Ghostbusters' after Sigourney Weaver, sultry if possessed, says to him, 'Do you want my body?' Murray says: 'Is that a trick question?'"