Three Questions About Bill Clinton’s Possible Role as First Gentleman

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By Laura Meckler  – – –

Democrat Hillary Clinton created a stir when she deviated from her typically vague description of the role her husband, former President Bill Clinton, would play if she is elected president, and instead said he would be “in charge” of economic revitalization.

Her aides scrambled to explain why what she said was nothing new, producing a long list of instances when she offered variations on this same theme. They made clear that no decisions have been made about exactly what he would do.

But the back-and-forth raises legitimate questions about what would be an unprecedented situation. Much has been made of the fact that a former first lady would be the president. On the flip side: a former president would suddenly be the nation’s first, first gentleman.

Here are three big questions about the role Mr. Clinton might play if his wife is elected president:

What sort of assignments would a President Hillary Clinton give him?

Both Clintons have repeatedly pointed to the economy as an area where he could bring particular expertise. For Mrs. Clinton, it’s at least partly been a way to remind voters of the good economic times in the country when her husband was president.

“I want to help bring back the kind of economy that worked for everybody in the 1990s,” she said in Paducah, Ky., on Monday, and then promised to deploy her husband to help “get incomes rising.”

“Jobs, jobs, jobs,” she said last month on “The Late Show,” when host Stephen Colbert asked about his role. “Nobody did it better, created more jobs, helped incomes rise. I want every bit of advice he can give me about how we do the same going forward.”

But how might he actually help? Would he be in her inner circle of economic advisers? How would his role dovetail with other officials, such as the Treasury secretary or members of the National Economic Council?

People close to her say she foresees a much more targeted role than she sometimes implies. Rather than being “in charge” or responsible for raising all Americans’ incomes, she sees him bringing people together to develop economic plans for particular places, they say. Spokesman Nick Merrill specifically pointed to coal country and inner cities as the sort of spots where Mr. Clinton might focus his attention.

At the same time, Mrs. Clinton has also talked about using her husband, who has deep interest and experience in foreign policy,  for “special missions” abroad. In December, late-night TV host Seth Meyers jokingly asked Mrs. Clinton how she would get the former president out of the Situation Room, and she replied, “Well, maybe there’ll be occasions when I don’t want to.” She then recounted how the Obama administration sent Mr. Clinton to North Korea to bring home two journalists who were being held there.

What about his current job at the Clinton Foundation?

Mr. Clinton is founder of the Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation, a charity that raises money for projects around the world aimed at improving health care, education and the environment. Would he continue to raise money for the foundation?

Critics say such an arrangement poses a potential conflict of interest, possibly enabling donors to curry favor with a sitting president. The foundation currently accepts donations from some foreign governments, complicating the matter further. Already, the foundation has come under criticism for donations while Mrs. Clinton was secretary of state  from parties that had interests before the State Department.

“If Hillary Clinton is elected president, Bill Clinton should fully withdraw from any relationship with the foundation,” said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, a watchdog group. “Otherwise there would be an inherent conflict of interest between the interests of donors to the foundation and relevant policy decisions made by the executive branch.”

It’s not clear how he will handle it. Last June, Bloomberg TV asked Mr. Clinton if he would still give paid speeches if his wife is elected. “I don’t think so,” he replied, saying he didn’t want to make news that detracted from the presidency. He added: “I will still give speeches, though, on the subjects I’m interested in.”

At that event, he said he didn’t know what would happen to the Clinton Foundation if his wife was elected president. Asked on Monday what his role with the foundation would be, a Clinton campaign spokesman declined comment.

What about the traditional duties of the first lady?

First ladies serve a number of ceremonial roles, such as helping to oversee social events at the White House, choosing china patterns and the White House décor, as well as serving as official hostess. Mrs. Clinton has made it clear that her husband would not pick up much of that.

“I am probably still going to pick the flowers and the china for state dinners and stuff like that,” she said during a debate in December.

It seems likely that Mr. Clinton would be known as the “first gentleman.” Early this year, Mrs. Clinton called on an Iowa voter wearing a T-shirt reading, “Bill Clinton for First Lady.” She replied, “You know, I’m sort of more partial to First Mate or First Dude.” 

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