Bill Clinton's Health Scare: What Does He Mean for Democrats?

Former president is not the center of the party but still enjoys some influence.

ByABC News
February 12, 2010, 11:48 AM

Feb. 12, 2010— -- For a fleeting moment this week, Bill Clinton was the center of the political universe again. It had been a while, and it might be a while before it happens again.

The former president's health scare shined a spotlight on the unique role of a unique individual. Clinton is no longer the focal point of the Democratic Party, a post he held in some fashion for a decade and a half.

But in a career marked by extremes, he retains the prestige -- if not the well-defined role -- he once enjoyed as president.

"The fact of the matter is, he is the only two-term Democratic president since Franklin Roosevelt," presidential historian Richard Norton Smith said. "The fact is, he is the president who found the winning formula not only to win an election but then to govern. I think he's a guy who they [Democrats] see [as one] ... who brought them out of wilderness, someone who gave them a formula for winning reelections in a center-right country."

A year into the Obama presidency, with Clinton's wife serving as the nation's top diplomat and his former aides populating the top echelon of the administration and its outside advisers, the former president has popped up in high-profile ways sporadically.

To the relief of many of President Obama's supporters, the former president has largely stayed away from politics, and hasn't broken publicly with the current administration in any significant way.

Leaning on lessons learned from his own failures, Clinton, 63, was called on to rile up Democratic lawmakers on health care when negotiations were going sour. He made a secret trip to North Korea to bring back detained journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee, with the blessing of the White House.

And, in addition to his extensive worldwide work through the William J. Clinton Foundation, he has led a high-profile relief effort in Haiti, joining forces with former President George W. Bush to help a country he has long adored.

"He still has a very important role as one of the elder figures of the party," Julian E. Zelizer, professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University, said. "When he makes the pitch about what Democrats need to do in health care, he elicits a certain amount of respect that few other Democrats do."

But in an era defined by a new, young Democratic president -- one with little love for Clinton and his style of politics -- the former president's influence is questionable.

"I think he does enjoy a degree of regard and respect across the country and so the Democrats use him for these humanitarian efforts and also to promote a degree of bipartisanship, which is what happens with ex-presidents," presidential historian Robert Dallek said. "But people in the polls, they're asking about President Obama and the current congressional leaders. They don't ask about Bill Clinton."