How Bill Clinton, as first gentleman, could reshape role of first ladies

America's first female president would also come with America's first first gentleman, and Bill Clinton could transform the role – if Hillary lets him.

Lawrence Jackson/AP
If Hillary Clinton, shown here in 2009 being sworn in as secretary of State, becomes president, Bill Clinton (c.) would become the first "first gentleman."

At the Democratic National Convention, American politics is moving a step closer to shattering gender norms.

That's right – when Hillary Clinton officially becomes the Democratic nominee for president Tuesday, her husband Bill will be in position to boldly go where no American man has gone before: the East Wing of the White House and the office of the first spouse.

While not nearly as significant as electing a female president, it would not be a milestone to scoff at. As a former president himself, Mr. Clinton would be in a position to expand and redefine an office that has been criticized for not keeping pace with changing gender norms.

But it would be a tightrope act, experts say. With his experience and reputation, Clinton could normalize the concept of a first spouse involving themselves in politics, policy, and diplomacy, but he would have to do so without overshadowing his wife and partly hijacking the legacy of America’s first female president.

"He will have to balance his own personality tendencies, his own interest in public policy, with the idea that he can’t overshadow his wife," says Katherine Jellison, a history professor at Ohio University and an expert on first ladies.

"There's nothing in our Constitution that says anything about the role of the spouse of our president. It's an unelected office and people can make of it what they like," she adds. "There's certainly the potential there for him to redefine the role of first spouse." 

How much of an Eleanor Roosevelt would Bill be?

Since the days of Martha Washington, the job has been flexible, molded by a combination of social expectations, family commitments, and the personal preferences of the first lady. The first 31 presidents' first ladies stuck mostly to traditional homemaking roles, Dr. Jellison says – though, like most spouses, they have always been a trusted advisers to the president behind closed doors. It wasn’t until Eleanor Roosevelt swept into the White House that a first lady became publicly active in politics and policy.

"I think her shadow – or her sunbeam, depending on your perspective – has hung over the role ever since," Jellison adds. "'How much of an Eleanor Roosevelt am I going to be?'"

Some first ladies have taken a similar approach, including Mrs. Clinton, who was in charge of health care reform during her husband's first term. But most have acted as Michelle Obama has, pursuing a personal initiative or two and trying to not "get in the way of the president’s agenda," as former White House press secretary Reid Cherlin reported for The New Republic.

Perhaps a reason for that is the public criticism that has typically followed a first lady becoming politically active. Mrs. Roosevelt was "sometimes laughed at and sometimes bitterly resented" for her outspokenness during her 12 years in the White House, according to The New York Times, and Clinton retreated from the public eye after her health care effort failed.

It was around that time that Jeffrey Frankel came to the White House as one of President Clinton's economic advisers.

"There was some negative reaction to her in the first few years before I got there … as far as chairing a policymaking, decision-making group," says Dr. Frankel.

"I think that sort of suggested a certain boundary to how far people have been willing for a first lady to go," adds Frankel, now an economics professor at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

Should Bill Clinton take the office, the former president could help shift that boundary.  Given his qualifications, there could be less of an uproar if he is given a formal role in economic development, as his wife has suggested.

"My guess is a Clinton precedent would help smooth the way for" other first spouses who want to be involved in policymaking, Frankel says.

First spouse's biggest role won't change

It's something of a global trend to play the role of supportive spouse. Philip John May, the husband of new British Prime Minister Theresa May, has been described as a supportive but camera-shy "rock" in the mold of Margaret Thatcher's husband Denis.

Joachim Sauer, the quantum chemist married to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, has been so invisible he skipped her inauguration in 2005 to stay at work, but is described by aides as a "reality check" for her.

Clinton would likely assume that private role regardless of what public agendas he pursued. It's a crucial role the first spouse has played since America’s birth. Abigail Adams famously asked her husband John Adams in 1776 to "remember the ladies," and after he became the country's second president, she was seen as having significant influence on his political thinking and decisionmaking.

Frankel says that the most important guidance Bill Clinton could give to his wife is the "advice he'd give after hours, and that's something any first spouse would do."

This behind-the-scenes role might be what Mrs. Clinton prefers, as she is already fighting the perception that her presidency would be a third Bill Clinton term.

"Hillary gets to decide which type of role she lets Bill fill, and that's going to be critical to her legacy," says Shanna Pearson-Merkowitz, a political scientist at the University of Rhode Island.

"If she put him in charge of tax reform, then if she achieved tax reform, he gets all the credit," she adds. "She doesn't want that."

His role may be limited simply by the resources at his disposal – the East Wing has had about 15 staffers in recent terms – but that could be another thing a first first gentleman tries to change.

"If he becomes first gentleman it will be fascinating to watch the ways he does or does not recreate or expand that role," says Jellison. "It's all uncharted territory."

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