From the New Yorker
THE POLITICAL SCENE
LET’S BE FRIENDS
Two Presidents find a mutual advantage.
BY RYAN LIZZASEPTEMBER 10, 2012
Why else would Obama spend hours on a golf course being lectured by Clinton?
- Barack Obama and Bill Clinton have never been close. Some of their advisers concede that the two men don’t really like each other. They have openly disagreed on policy issues and political strategy, and the acrimony generated during the 2008 Democratic primaries, when Hillary Clinton ran against Obama for the nomination, has yet to fully dissipate. Nevertheless, a carefully orchestrated reconciliation of sorts has been under way for some time now. The former Democratic President, long spurned by the current one, has been given a prominent speaking spot at the Convention, in Charlotte, the night before the President’s speech—a spot usually reserved for the Vice-President. Joe Biden was bumped to the following night, in the slot immediately before Obama.
The reconciliation began in earnest late last summer. Patrick Gaspard, the former White House political director, who has moved to the Democratic National Committee, approached Douglas Band, Clinton’s closest political adviser and longtime gatekeeper, with some suggestions about how the former President might help with Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign. Band, who, by reputation, has an acute sense for moments of political advantage, tried to explain that you don’t just call up Bill Clinton and tell him to raise money and campaign for you. Band recommended that the two Presidents begin by playing golf. The next day, Obama phoned Clinton and invited him out for a round. Several Clinton associates say that this was the moment they realized that Obama truly wanted to win in 2012. Why else would he spend hours on a golf course being lectured by Clinton?
The Presidential round was played at Andrews Air Force Base on September 24, 2011, and since then Clinton has become a visible and vigorous champion of Obama’s reëlection. Clinton agreed to participate in several fund-raisers; he was in a documentary, released on March 15th, attesting to Obama’s sound judgment in ordering the raid on Osama bin Laden; and he recently appeared in an Obama campaign ad. “President Obama has a plan to rebuild America from the ground up,” Clinton says. “It only works if there is a strong middle class. That’s what happened when I was President. We need to keep going with his plan.” Behind the scenes, Clinton has been involved in detailed discussions about campaign strategy.
For Clinton, Obama’s solicitousness is a welcome affirmation of his legacy and, perhaps, an opportunity to boost his wife’s Presidential prospects. For Obama, the reconciliation could help him win in November. It’s also an ideological turnaround: Obama, who rose to the Oval Office in part by pitching himself as the antidote to Clintonism, is now presenting himself as its heir apparent. It’s a shrewd, even Clintonian, tactical maneuver.
The relationship between a sitting President and his living predecessors is rarely easy. According to “The Presidents Club,” by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy, Lyndon Johnson sometimes drafted the popular former President Dwight D. Eisenhower into his publicity schemes, which frustrated Ike, who complained to aides about being used. After Johnson left office, Richard Nixon cultivated him carefully, even sending weekly national-security briefings to his ranch, in Stonewall, Texas, by government aircraft. It worked; Johnson, who was alienated from his party because of Vietnam, mostly kept quiet during Nixon’s 1972 reelection campaign, against George McGovern. Ronald Reagan treated the recently disgraced Nixon with deference, which helped start Nixon’s late-career return to respectability, but the two men eventually fell out over Reagan’s Soviet policy. In 1989, George H. W. Bush recruited Jimmy Carter to help with policy toward Panama; that helped revive Carter’s reputation, but the relationship soured in 1991, when Carter tried to rally world leaders against Bush’s invasion of Iraq. When Carter attempted to offer advice at the start of Clinton’s Presidency, Clinton, with the Iraq incident fresh in memory, rebuffed him. Likewise, Obama, early in his term, ignored Clinton’s advice, which is said to have left Clinton feeling wounded.
Obama, throughout his career, has faced a challenge in how best to manage his political antecedent. Clinton is fifteen years Obama’s senior and was the dominant figure in Democratic politics during the years of his rise. Obama had graduated from Harvard Law School and moved back to Chicago in 1991, the year before Clinton was elected. He made his first mark on Chicago politics during the 1992 campaign, running a voter-registration drive that contributed to Clinton’s victory in Illinois—the first time that a Democratic Presidential nominee had won the state since 1964.
Yet Obama came to share an ambivalence toward Clinton’s policies that was common on the left. In 1996, Clinton, after vetoing two versions of controversial welfare-reform legislation, which he deemed too harsh, announced that he would sign the slightly modified third version. Obama, who was then practicing law at a firm well connected in progressive circles and lecturing at the University of Chicago, saw Clinton’s election-year decision as a sellout. He told one newspaper that he found it “disturbing.” Later, as an Illinois state senator, Obama said that he wouldn’t have supported Clinton’s welfare bill, and he helped pass a state law that restored benefits to legal immigrants, a group that Clinton’s policy had made ineligible.
In 2000, Obama’s political career was nearly derailed by Clinton. Obama was running against Bobby Rush, the incumbent congressman from the South Side of Chicago, in the Democratic primary. Rush had supported Clinton during his impeachment battle, and although Obama’s challenge was a long shot, Clinton helped ensure Rush’s victory with an appearance in the district just a week before primary day. Obama was so shattered by the defeat that he considered giving up politics. “It’s impossible not to feel at some level as if you have been personally repudiated by the entire community,” he wrote subsequently, in his 2006 book, “The Audacity of Hope,” and that “everywhere you go, the word ‘loser’ is flashing through people’s minds.”