Watch my Special Report piece on this story here:
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said today it would be insane not to use former President Bill Clinton on the campaign trail.
"I think it would be crazy not to have a former -- a very popular former president out campaigning, as he has in virtually every election cycle that I can remember in the last -- well, since 1992, so almost 20 years," Gibbs said.
During the epic battle for the 2008 Democratic nomination, team Obama thought it was, if not crazy, at least ill-advised for Hillary Clinton to rely so heavily on her husband. That was acutely true in South Carolina, where post-primary reviews - fully endorsed by Obama advisers at the time - of Clinton's performance were particularly harsh.
In fact, after Obama secured the nomination, in some media precincts Bill Clinton was viewed as a tragic figure whose time had come and gone.
But now, Clinton is back.
He was at the White House today with six of the nation's top CEOs pushing Obama to support large-scale "green" retrofitting projects - a pet investment of Clinton's Global Initiative and partially on display at the Empire State Building.
On the political front, Clinton talks regularly with Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel (his White House political director and senior adviser from 1993-1998). Clinton and his staff now play a more active role in White House mid-term campaign preparations.
Amid an on-going spat between the White House and House Democrats over the degree to which the party's 39-seat majority is in jeopardy, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) has collected poll numbers showing the congressional districts where Clinton runs ahead of Obama. The DCCC is now drawing up a list of district-by-district campaign requests it hopes Clinton will fulfill.
"They have lots of asks in -- as does everyone," said a Bill Clinton confidant. "But there are only so many hours in the day."
Here's what Rep. Chris Van Hollen, Maryland Democrat and DCCC chair, told me about Clinton today:
"He's been very effective and not just in fund-raising but traveling to member's districts and talking about the economic recovery bill. Bill Clinton has been very effective."
A partial explanation for Clinton's political resurgence and new value to the White House can be found in a Public Policy Polling survey showing Clinton's endorsement means as much, and could mean more, than Obama's. (The nation had already received a preview of Clinton's endorsement value in the hotly contested special election in Pennsylvania's 12th congressional district and in Sen. Blanche Lincoln's upset run-off win over liberal challenger Bill Halter).
The national poll showed the value of Obama and Clinton's endorsements to be statistically tied -- 32% said they would be more likely to vote for a candidate endorsed by Obama, 31% said that about a Clinton endorsement. One the negative side, 49% said an Obama endorsement would make them less likely to vote for a candidate (including 21% of Democrats). Meanwhile, 43% said a Clinton endorsement would make them less likely to back a candidate (including 17% of Democrats).
These numbers give Bill Clinton political clout and the power to say no -- as he already has with his money-raising endorsement of Andrew Romanoff in Colorado over White House-backed Sen. Michael Bennett. In this race, Bennett still leads, although no polls have been taken since Clinton entered the fray.
Loyalists say Clinton will take his own counsel and move as he sees fit through the mid-term thicket. He stands ready to help the White House but is no mood to play party fireman.
Bottom line: Clinton will know at the beginning of October how much he's needed. Each race he engages will likely be one where he will be more visible than Obama or Vice President Joe Biden (the most aggressive fund-raiser for House Democrats -- 29 events to Obama's four).
Clinton's exertions may not be enough to save Democrats. Alternatively, there's a possibility the economy will improve or Republican candidates will fail to capitalize on a sour, anti-incumbent mood.
Many variables remain.
But by bringing Clinton visibly back into the fold, the White House is tacitly endorsing a strategy that defines the mid-terms not as referendum on Obama's results, but as a broader fight over party ideologies.
"We all know," Van Hollen told me, "the day after the election everyone (in the media) will read the outcome as a referendum on the Obama administration. The White House understands it has a huge stake in how these mid-term elections go. That's why the president has been very intent on focusing on the choices voters have to make. To look at what Republicans are offering - a rehash of economic ideas that got us into this mess in the first place."
Democratic strategists see this as a no-lose situation for Clinton. If he saves seats, his party reputation and clout are enhanced. If he doesn't, the White House record and strategy will be blamed.
Either way, by the end of this cycle Clinton may erase any lingering sentiment that the age of Obama has rendered obsolete his "brand" or his approach to politics.
Viewed through the prism of the '08 campaign, there's only one word to describe such a scenario.