If Obama wins, it may be because the former president saved his presidency—but what exactly do the Clintons get in return?
Four years ago, on September 11, Barack Obama made the pilgrimage to Harlem to have lunch with Bill Clinton. The meal was the first tête-à-tête between the soon-to-be president and the former one since the unpleasantness of the Democratic nomination contest, and feelings on both sides were still raw and fraught with suspicion. Clinton’s staff had wanted to include a Harlem stroll and photo op as part of the visit, but Obama’s people demurred—a standoff that led each camp to ascribe race-related motives to the other. Eager to avoid awkwardness, Obama kept the conversation focused on governance, not politics. But at the end, Clinton offered to hit the campaign trail for, or with, the nominee. Obama, fighting a stomach bug, said okay and then beat a hasty exit to avoid upchucking on Clinton’s shoes.
In truth, neither side was delighted at the prospect of Clinton stumping for Obama. The latter’s team believed that he wouldn’t move many votes, and were only interested in having the two men appear onstage together to stop the press from harping on the fact that they had not. Clinton, meanwhile, was still simmering over his treatment during the primaries—in particular over Obama’s assertion, before the Nevada caucuses, that “Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that … Bill Clinton did not.” On countless conference calls with his wife’s campaign, Clinton had returned obsessively to the slight, which he saw not as a gambit to get inside his head (which it was) but as Obama’s genuine opinion. “He would have been less angry if he thought it was tactical,” a former Clinton aide remembers. “But he thought Obama actually believed he was a shitty president.”
Dutifully, halfheartedly, Clinton headlined a handful of solo events for Obama that October. And then, on the Wednesday before Election Day, the pair enacted their one joint appearance, in Kissimmee, Florida. Clinton’s speech on that frosty night was emphatic, at times hyperactive. “Folks, we can’t fool with this!” he declared. “Our country is hanging in the balance; this man should be our president!” But his talk was all of thirteen minutes long and entirely formulaic, festooned with not a single warm personal anecdote or insight.
Seated on a stool next to Clinton, Obama wore an impassive expression, as if he were being endorsed by a Kissimmee town councilman—or a former president whose vaunted rhetorical gifts were inferior to his own. “He thought it was fine,” recalls a senior Obama adviser. “We were all watching on TV, and we thought it was fine, too. But by then, nobody cared that much. We were all just so far past the Clintons.”
Four years later, two words leap to mind: As if. Today, Hillary Clinton is the most popular member of Obama’s Cabinet, and her husband is not only his greatest but most tireless political ally. This past September 11, the Y-chromosome Clinton was in Miami, ripping Mitt Romney a new one over Medicare. Since then, Clinton has campaigned for Obama in New Hampshire and Nevada, raised money for him in Boston and with him in Los Angeles—and there is more to come. A TV ad with Clinton making the case for Obama’s reelection has run 16,000 times in swing states across the country. Another, featuring a clip of Clinton’s address at the Democratic convention, almost gives the impression that he is Obama’s running mate. Then there is that speech itself, which another top Obama adviser tells me flatly is “the most important moment of the campaign so far.”
The Barack-and-Bill double act on display this fall marks a new and intriguing phase in a psychological entanglement so rich that if Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung were alive, they would surely be squabbling over it instead of Sabina Spielrein’s hysteria. No one close to Obama or Clinton even bothers with the pretense that there is any real affection between them. But most concur with the assessment of a Democratic operative with tentacles deep in both worlds: that “the relationship today is totally transactional—and highly functional.”
What Obama stands to gain from the transaction is plain enough to see. The support of the political figure with the highest approval rating, 69 percent, of any in America. The suasive services of a surrogate who can talk the owls down from the trees. The imprimatur of a former president associated with a period of broad and deep prosperity, imbued with unparalleled credibility on matters economic, and possessing special traction with the white working- and middle-class voters whom Obama has always had a hard time reaching. What Obama stands to gain, in other words, is a healthy boost in his quest for reelection—one all the more invaluable in the wake of his dismal performance in the first debate.
The potential payoff for Clinton is more ineffable but no less substantial. Last time around, recall, Obama’s candidacy was based in part on the consignment of Clintonism to the dustbin of history. But now, with Obama running unabashedly as the inheritor of that creed, Clinton is reveling in seeing his legacy restored to what he regards as its rightful status: a restoration that will mightily benefit his wife if she hurls herself at the White House again in 2016. Speculation on that topic is rife within the Clinton diaspora; no one has a clue as to whether or not Hillary will run. But, equally, no one doubts that her husband dearly wants her to—mainly because, among members of the tribe, he can’t shut up about it.
Clintonism isn’t the only thing being rejuvenated here, however. What’s taking place is the revivification—and the Godzilla-scale enlargement—of Clinton himself. In 2008, a not insignificant number of white liberals and African-Americans assailed him as, if not a racist, a race-baiter; he was battered and bruised, scalded and scarred, mired in self-pity. But in 2012, he has emerged as the Democrats’ own Dutch: revered by his party, respected so much by the GOP that it dare not cross him, sanctified by the great heaving middle.
The irony, and it is thick as porridge, is that the instrument of this transformation has been the younger man whom Clinton once scorned as a usurper—acting with a degree of cold calculation that the elder cannot help but admire. “Obama engineered this reconciliation, and I think the whole time he was, like, ‘Why do I have to do this?’ ” says Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress and a former adviser to both Hillary and Obama. “He did it because he wanted to win, and this was the way to do it. But in the process, he’s made Bill Clinton the king of the world.”
Clinton, to be sure, has experienced regnant periods before, and every time they presaged a precipitous and self-inflicted fall. As his biographer David Maraniss has observed, Clinton’s life is a ceaseless cycle of triumph, disgrace, and redemption—up and down, up and down, wash, rinse, and repeat. Among those in Clinton’s orbit, the salient question is whether, at long last, the cycle has been broken. Or will the Maximum Canine, having shed his leash, soon find himself in the doghouse again?
A few hours before Obama ambled on to the debate stage in Denver, Clinton was 2,026 miles away, taking the podium on the president’s behalf in the Field House at the University of New Hampshire in Durham. The speech Clinton uncorked inside the packed gymnasium was mostly an abbreviated reprise of his convention stemwinder. But it contained one new riff that, by the end of the night, millions of Democrats would find themselves wishing had come from Obama’s mouth instead.
“I couldn’t believe it the other day when the president’s opponent said that the 47 percent of American people who don’t pay income tax just wanna hang around and be dependent on the government and, you know, we just had to wean them off that because they didn’t wanna pay income tax,” Clinton said. “Now, a guy with a tax account in the Cayman Islands is attacking other people for not wanting to [pay taxes]? I mean, you gotta give him credit—like I said, that’s like Congressman Ryan attacking Barack Obama for having the same Medicare savings he did. When you really bust somebody for doing what you did, it takes a lot of gall, you know? But lemme tell you who those 47 percent are … Most of them are families who work.”
Clinton could not have looked giddier—jabbing the air with his thumb, unfurling his trademark finger rolls and open-palmed laments, his face so flushed it looked as if butter would have melted on his forehead. New Hampshire, of course, is a special place for Clinton, the environs where, in 1992, he’d gloried in campaigning “until the last dog dies” and earned the sobriquet “the Comeback Kid.” But the Granite State is also where, in 2008, his self-immolation began with his railing against Obama’s Iraq War record as a “fairy tale.” From then on, it was all downhill: the rope-line explosion in South Carolina, the comparison of Obama’s victory in the Democratic primary there to that of Jesse Jackson’s in 1988, the refusal, on the eve of their party’s convention, to affirm that Obama was ready to be commander-in-chief.
To Obama, this behavior was a stark affirmation of the critique he had been offering of Clintonism: that it was based on “calculation, not conviction”; that it was polarizing, not unifying; that it was self-serving and ignoble. In The Audacity of Hope, Obama had written that the partisan wars of the Clinton years were an outgrowth of baby boomer “psychodrama.” Watching WJC lose his mind in 2008, BHO thought, QED.
But after Obama sealed the nomination, his attitude toward the Clintons shifted to a sharp differentiation. His rancor toward Hillary evaporated: Obama needed her support, wanted her on his side, and was willing to work for it. But Obama saw no benefit in kissing 42’s ring, let alone his ass. I’d be happy to call him if it would make a difference, Obama told his confidants. But why waste my time if he’s just gonna keep crapping all over me?
It was Obama’s pursuit of Hillary to be secretary of State that sparked the first hints of détente. At first she didn’t want the job, she required persuasion, and both Obama and her husband worked her hard. “The fact that Obama made the offer was a pretty damn big thing to Clinton,” says a former lieutenant of his. “And the way Obama has treated her—as a partner, giving her State as her eminent domain—means even more to him.”
With Hillary ensconced in Foggy Bottom, Bill turned his attention to his foundation and the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) with renewed vigor. And while he’d emerged from the campaign with his share of wounds, he spent little time licking them—or hatching any rehabilitation project. “He did not sit down with a cadre of advisers and say, ‘Okay, I need my four-year plan,’ ” says Joel Johnson, managing director of the Glover Park Group and a senior White House adviser in Clinton’s second term. “He just did what he always does, which is to get back to work.”
Which is not to say that Clinton was shy of opinions regarding Obama’s performance in office. On policy, there was no daylight between them: Clinton was for Obama’s stimulus, Wall Street reregulation, and especially health-care reform—and was vastly impressed by Obama’s ability to get it passed, as Clinton had been unable to do. At the same time, he was baffled by Obama’s failures at the basic blocking and tackling of politics, his insularity, and his alienation of the business community. As a former Clinton hand put it to the Washington Post, “He thinks that Obama gets all the hard stuff right but doesn’t do the easy stuff at all.”
Clinton, being Clinton, had plenty of advice in mind and was desperate to impart it. But for the first two years of Obama’s term, the phone calls Clinton kept expecting rarely came. “People say the reason Obama wouldn’t call Clinton is because he doesn’t like him,” observes Tanden. “The truth is, Obama doesn’t call anyone, and he’s not close to almost anyone. It’s stunning that he’s in politics, because he really doesn’t like people. My analogy is that it’s like becoming Bill Gates without liking computers.”
Yet behind Obama’s standoffishness was something more elemental: He didn’t think he needed Clinton. He believed his administration was successful, that things were going fine. Then came the 2010 midterms and the shellacking administered to his party by the Republicans. Suddenly, the world changed—and Clinton’s phone began to ring.
A month after the midterms, on December 10, Clinton met Obama in the Oval Office. The president had just negotiated a compromise with the GOP over extending the Bush-era tax cuts and was facing an insurrection on the left. After 70 minutes, the longest talk they’d had since Obama took office, they decided to stage an impromptu press conference. At the podium in the White House briefing room, Obama said he and Clinton had “just had a terrific meeting” and he thought “it might be useful” to “bring the other guy in” to “speak very briefly” about the tax-cut deal—while Obama left to attend a Christmas party.
Taking the microphone and affecting his best aw-shucks manner, Clinton said, “I feel awkward being here, and now you’re going to leave me all by myself”—and then proceeded to demonstrate that awkwardness by fielding questions for 23 minutes after Obama bailed. But Clinton’s defense of the deal was effective; the liberal rebellion was effectively quashed.
In that moment, the parallels between Obama’s and Clinton’s first two years became even more apparent. Both rode into office promising change; both found Washington more resistant to it than they’d imagined; both pursued politically unpopular initiatives and paid a heavy price; both had trouble holding their own caucuses together and met stiff Republican intransigence. And the similarities would only deepen in 2011. Just as Clinton battled with Newt Gingrich’s self-styled revolutionary freshmen over the budget in his third year, culminating in a government shutdown, Obama did battle with John Boehner’s bloody-minded tea-party freshmen over the federal debt ceiling, leading nearly to a default on America’s debts and a historic downgrade of its credit rating
Even after the double-barreled press conference, Obama continued to resist the idea of pulling Clinton closer. But the political fallout from the debt-ceiling debacle—with Obama’s approval rating plummeting to its all-time low of 38 percent—was severe enough to convince the president and his team that they could no longer let obstinacy stand in the way of survival. And thus began a full-court Clinton press. A round of golf for him and Obama at the links on Andrews Air Force Base in the early fall of 2011. Regular phone calls from the president soliciting his predecessor’s opinions and advice. A visit to Harlem last November by Obama strategist David Axelrod, campaign manager Jim Messina, and pollster Joel Benenson, who together gave Clinton a full download on the campaign’s voter research and the strategy it was honing for taking on Romney. And how did Clinton react? “How do you think?” asks one of the meeting’s attendees. “He ate it up.”
Three weeks later, 42 and 44 appeared at an event promoting green buildings—a pet project of Clinton’s—in Washington. Each heaped praise on the other, but Obama’s bouquets were especially lavish. “When Bill Clinton was president, we didn’t shortchange investment,” he said. “We lived within our means. We invested in our future. We asked everybody to pay their fair share. You know what happened? The private sector thrived, jobs were created, the middle class grew—its income grew—millions rose out of poverty, we ran a surplus. We were actually on track to be able to pay off all of our debt. We were firing on all cylinders. We can be that nation again.”
When the event was over, a reporter called out, “President Clinton, do you have any advice for President Obama about the economy?” Obama, grinning widely, interjected wryly, “Oh, he gives me advice all the time”—as Clinton looked on, beaming.
Flattery will carry you a long way in life, and even further with Bill Clinton. Soon enough, he agreed in principle to do whatever he could to help with Obama’s reelection: appear in ads, headline events, assist with fund-raising. But more than obsequiousness was at work in bringing on the thaw. “Clinton was pretty impatient with people on the left who were grousing that what Obama was doing wasn’t good enough,” says John Podesta, a former Clinton White House chief of staff. “He feels like Obama really did get a lot done and doesn’t have too much time for people whining about, say, health care, saying, ‘But it wasn’t single-payer’ or ‘Where’s the public option?’ ”
At the same time, Podesta goes on, Obama has abandoned his critique of Clintonism, substantively and politically. “One part of his argument was, ‘Let’s get beyond this baby-boom-Vietnam-crazy-shit angst that produced Gingrich, Clinton, blah blah, blah,’ ” he says. “But Obama, having gotten a dose of the polarization, has a deeper understanding that that isn’t what it’s about. The other part was, ‘We’re not gonna be too political, we’re not gonna go small-bore, we’re gonna be visionary, da-da-da.’ It was an appealing piece of his message to college-educated white voters in the primary. But to middle-class and working-class voters, it’s kinda an abstract theory, which is why Clinton has always appealed to them—he’s the guy who’s in there pitching every day, sweating it out, getting to work for them. And Obama, after [the debt-ceiling debacle], has transformed into, ‘We’re gonna fight for the middle class, we’re gonna gut this out day to day.’ So in some ways, Clinton came to Obama. But in other ways, Obama came to Clinton.”
No path trod alongside Clinton, though, is ever paved with primrose; the presence of potholes is inevitable. In May, Clinton appeared on CNN’s Piers Morgan Tonight, guest-hosted that evening by his friend Harvey Weinstein. The Obama campaign, along with the Democratic super-pac Priorities USA Action, had just begun the assault on Romney’s career at Bain, but when Weinstein asked Clinton about that, Clinton veered wildly off-message. “I don’t think that we ought to get into the position where we say this is bad work—this is good work,” he said of private equity, adding that Romney had “a sterling business career.” The reaction in Obamaland was instantaneous, apoplectic, and reflexively paranoid: What the fuuuccck? Is this intentional? Is he trying to screw us? were the themes of the e-mail chain that rocketed around the campaign’s upper echelon.
The next morning, the Obamans confronted Clinton through his aide Doug Band. At first, Clinton insisted he’d done nothing wrong—that he’d made it clear Romney was inferior to Obama on policy, on what he’d do as president. (This was true.) One reading of what happened was that Clinton, a decidedly pre-YouTube pol, had failed to realize that the damaging portion of his interview would be ripped out of context and go viral. Another was that Clinton was throwing a purpose pitch, signaling to the Obamans that they should go after Romney while remaining aspirational and not further pissing off the business community. But a third, perhaps most persuasive interpretation was that Clinton was building Romney up to more effectively tear him down later. “Clinton always finds ways to compliment his opponents,” says Johnson, “before elegantly sticking the knife in.”
Clinton promptly clarified his comments and was fast forgiven by Chicago, and not just because, at a joint fund-raiser in New York with Obama days later, he dropped an anvil on Romney’s head, maintaining that his policies would be “calamitous for our country and the world.” By then, Clinton was all-in with the campaign—raising cash, narrating a web video, cutting his direct-to-camera ad. But the biggest ask was yet to come: that Clinton take the stage as the marquee act for one night of the Democratic convention in Charlotte, North Carolina. On July 25, Obama called Clinton and formally offered him the gig.
The heft of the burden being laid on Clinton’s shoulders is hard to overstate. With the convention consuming only three prime-time broadcast TV hours—the first dominated by Michelle Obama and focused on her husband’s character, and the third by Obama and his vision of the future—Clinton would be required both to clarify the choice between Obama and Romney and to vouch for the president’s economic stewardship, the one area in which the Republican enjoyed a persistent lead in the polls. “I saw [senior White House adviser David] Plouffe a few weeks before the convention,” says a prominent Democrat. “He made no bones about the fact that Clinton’s speech was far more important than Obama’s, because Clinton is an economic arbiter like no other.”
Clinton, who Maraniss has written “loves to be needed as much as he needs to be loved,” was delighted—and set about tackling his assignment so early that it startled his longtime adjutants. “Several weeks before the speech, his assistant called me and said, ‘The president wants input from a lot of people. Can you send us something?’ ” recalls Paul Begala. “A week or two later, I hadn’t quite gotten around to it, and he called me personally and said, ‘I haven’t gotten anything from you.’ This is weeks before the speech! He never does that!”
Clinton wasn’t just seeking input: He was jonesing for facts and figures, constantly demanding them from Bruce Reed and Gene Sperling, two Obama-administration officials who also served Clinton and who’d been assigned to help with the speech. For four years, his most acute frustration with Obama has been over his inability or unwillingness to make the case for his achievements, to sell them to the country. Now Clinton saw an opportunity, and even a responsibility, to remedy the shortcoming. As he was brainstorming the speech, Clinton chanted one sentence like a mantra: “People need education, not eloquence.”
Though Axelrod was in communication with Clinton, he was all too aware Chicago would have no input into the speech—which made him and his colleagues a touch queasy. “It took a leap of faith for them to do something they weren’t scripting,” says someone intimately involved with the process. “It was a week after Clint Eastwood, and the campaign was politely wondering, ‘Um, when are we going to see it?’ ” Which put Reed and Sperling in the position of having to calm the horses. “We had to remind them,” Reed tells me, “that Clintonworld has always run on a just-in-time business model.”
Clinton rolled into Charlotte late on the night before his speech, then stayed up until 3 a.m. laboring over it. The next morning, he summoned an assortment of his oldest and most trusted hands—Begala, Podesta, Reed, Sperling, plus former White House press secretary Joe Lockhart, former national-security adviser Sandy Berger, and Hillary’s infamous Svengali Mark Penn—to his suite at the Hilton to assist him in bringing the thing in for a landing.
For everyone in the room that day, the scene was at once intoxicatingly and achingly familiar. All had worked on innumerable high-stakes Clinton speeches in years past, from convention addresses to States of the Union to Election Night orations, and virtually every one had been just like this: a bunch of white guys around a table playing verbal pepper with the boss; Clinton armed with his yellow legal and a Sharpie, scratching out stanzas in his nearly illegible southpaw scrawl, handing them to his assistant to be typed up and printed out, and then furiously crossing out what he’d written and scribbling something new—periodically interrupting the flow to regale everyone with the latest jokes he’d heard.
Despite all the work Clinton had done beforehand, the speech was no more than half-written when his former aides arrived and already was way too long. But having seen this movie many times before, none were freaked or fazed. “Clinton is like a jazz musician,” Reed says. “He knows all the songs. The only questions are which ones is he going to play, which ones fit together best, and in what order?”
At one point Begala, being mischievous but not without purpose, took out his iPad and showed Clinton a news story about Paul Ryan, who that morning in Iowa had snarked about 42’s impending speech, “My guess is we will get a great rendition of how good things were in the nineties, but we’re not going to hear much about how things have been the last four years.” Clinton chuckled and replied, “Well, you know, I guess he’s gonna be surprised.”
Clinton, indeed, was loaded for bear when it came to Ryan and Medicare, as well as on Medicaid and welfare. But beyond those discrete areas of policy, he was focused on answering a time-tested question that the Obamans had been stumbling over: Are you better off today than you were four years ago? “It’s difficult,” says Begala. “His former pollster, Stan Greenberg, has been vociferous on this point. Stan says, ‘If you try to tell people things have been great, they get angry with you, so don’t do it.’ But Clinton went right into the teeth of that.”
Clinton thought the answer was obvious and provable, but knew he could go further—invoking his own legacy not to boast but bolster Obama, providing a rejoinder more potent than any the president could offer. For more than an hour in the early afternoon, Clinton compulsively wordsmithed the single line that would be rendered thus: “No president—not me, not any of my predecessors, no one—could have repaired all of the damage that [Obama] found in just four years.” “He kept coming back to it and coming back to it and then rephrasing it again,” recalls Begala. “He intuitively got that that one line was the heart of the speech, the whole ballgame.”
Clinton was right about that, but the power of the line was much enhanced by what came a little earlier—the praise he heaped on Eisenhower, Reagan, Bush 41, and Bush 43. Initially, that paragraph had been preceded by one lauding all the Democratic presidents of his lifetime, but then Clinton decided to strike it. In elevating the Republicans alone, he realized, he would elevate himself, enhancing the perception of him as a neutral authority, not a partisan, and hence strengthening his later claim for Obama’s record. “It’s instinctual for him,” says Lockhart. “He said, ‘The way I’m going to make the second half of the speech work is doing the first part this way.’ ”
The rest of the afternoon was for cutting. Clinton had been allotted twenty minutes, but neither the folks in Chicago nor those in the room were addled enough to believe that he would not run over. Still, in an effort to show Chicago a draft not quite as long as Infinite Jest, thousands of words were sliced away. But with dusk setting in and Axelrod about to jump out of his skin at having not seen the text, the speech still had a small defect: no ending. “Well, I could just riff,” Clinton said, and everyone cracked up.
Around 7 p.m., just three hours before Clinton was set to take the stage, a draft was finally dispatched to Axelrod. Clinton took a nap, had a shower, then did a single rehearsal with a teleprompter in his suite around 9:15—clocking in at 28 minutes.
The speech Clinton proceeded to uncork onstage bore a passing resemblance to the one he rehearsed, but no more than that. The text as prepared for delivery was 3,279 words; as actually delivered it was 5,888 and consumed 49 minutes. Much of what had been cut that day Clinton reinserted on the fly, but many of the best lines—popping Ryan for having “some brass” on Medicare, and arguing that Hillary’s relationship with Obama was a healthy sign that democracy need not be a “blood sport”—were pure ad-libs. And for all the jesting about him just riffing his conclusion, that was exactly what he did, spinning out the tale about how George Washington was “criticized for being a mediocre surveyor with a bad set of false wooden teeth,” and about how America always “come[s] through every fire a little stronger and a little better.”
When the speech was over, and after Obama strode onstage and locked arms with Clinton, the current president was “pretty jazzed—and grateful,” recalls one of his advisers. As for the former one, he went out to a party and then back to his suite, reconvening around 2 a.m. with the white guys who’d been there all day and were now over the moon. “All of Charlotte was on a high,” Reed recalls. “But I don’t think anyone was higher than Clinton.”
If Clinton was the man of the hour in Charlotte, three weeks later in New York, at CGI, he demonstrated he was also the man to see. On the conference’s last day, Romney and Obama both paid obeisance to him by gracing the stage. The Republican opened with a well-turned line regarding Clinton’s introduction of him: “If there’s one thing we’ve learned in this election season, by the way, it’s that a few words from Bill Clinton can do a man a lot of good—all I gotta do now is wait a couple of days for that bounce to happen.” And Obama followed up in a similar vein: “Thank you for your very kind introduction—although I have to admit I really did like the speech a few weeks ago a little bit better.”
By the time of CGI, it was clear that Clinton’s convention declamation had produced tangible effects, both micro and macro. Consider welfare. In the weeks leading up to the party conventions, the Romney campaign had been leaning hard into the issue, spending heavily on negative ads that featured Clinton as the admirable reformer whom Obama was undermining by “gutting” work requirements. In his speech, Clinton reviewed his own history on welfare, laid out Obama’s stance, and trashed the ads as “just not true.”
By relying on a validator from the opposite party who is, ahem, alive, Team Romney had taken an obvious risk. “When you do that, you have to make sure that the person you’re holding up as the referee isn’t going to throw a flag on you,” says Obama’s lead pollster Joel Benenson. “Clinton threw a flag on them pretty definitively; there probably wasn’t even an instant-replay review.” And within days of his doing so, the Romney ads on welfare disappeared from the airwaves, never to be seen again.
But the broader changes in public opinion following the speech were even more dramatic and significant. In all the prior polling, two of the most troubling numbers for Obama had been the percentage of voters who perceived the country as headed in the right direction (which had been stuck in the low thirties) and who believed the economy was improving (in the high twenties as recently as July). By the end of September, however, the right-track number had shot up to 40 in the NBC News—Wall Street Journal survey, and the percentage of voters feeling optimistic about the economy had risen to 44. And not coincidentally, the president, after lagging Romney consistently on the question of who is better equipped to handle the economy, was in a statistical tie with his rival.
From right to left, a consensus congealed that the speech had been the cause of the movement. Judging from their Clinton-heavy advertising and Obama’s relentless name-checking of WJC on the stump, the Obamans apparently agree. And, not surprisingly, so do the Clintonites. “Convention speeches usually get judged on the poetry, and the Democratic ones have been more known for expressing heroic failure: Ted Kennedy in 1980 or Mario Cuomo in 1984, which were great speeches but losing arguments,” notes one of them. “But as an exercise in political persuasion, it’s hard to think of a speech as effective as Clinton’s. Then when you add to that his age and that he’s been retired from office for twelve years, it’s like Ted Williams flirting with hitting .400 at the age of 39.”
Taken together, all of this led, as October dawned, to a sense of outsize optimism among Democrats that the election was basically in the bag—until, that is, Obama’s dismal, nay disastrous performance at the first debate in Denver, which induced an immediate and convulsive wave of near panic. Ever since then, Team Obama has been struggling to deal with (and even flailing in the face of) Romney’s Etch-A-Sketch maneuver and the strategic conundrum it presents: whether to continue attacking him as a right-wing extremist, shift to assailing him as a flip-flopper, or attempt a delicate synthesis of the two approaches.
It was Clinton who, at his meeting with Axelrod, Benenson, and Messina in Harlem nearly a year ago, helped the Obamans find their way when they first approached this fork in the road. According to more than one attendee, Clinton said, in effect, that pursuing the flip-flopper line would be a mistake, because centrist voters would conclude that Romney was only lurching rightward to get through the GOP primaries and would switch back to being more moderate if he attained the Oval Office—an outcome those voters would happily accept. Therefore, Clinton counseled, it made more sense to stop tarring Romney as “coreless,” as Team Obama had been doing, and instead paint him as excessively conservative and thus unacceptable to key voting groups such as suburban white women and Hispanics.
Precisely how Clinton would advise, or has advised, Obama to cope with Romney’s latest bout of shape-shifting in the two remaining debates is unknown (at least by me). But last week, at a rally in Las Vegas, Clinton emitted some vivid clues. Delivering lines soaked in sarcasm but softened with a gleeful smile and whimsical cadences, he shredded Romney six ways to Sunday.
“I had a different reaction to that first debate than a lot of people did,” Clinton said. “I thought, Wow, here’s old Moderate Mitt—where you been, boy? I missed you all these last few years! But I was paying attention … [when you were] Severe Conservative Mitt. That was how he described himself for two whole years, until three or four days before the debate, they all got together and said, ‘Hey, Mitt, this ship is sinking faster than the Titanic, but people are still frustrated about the economy, they want it fixed yesterday, so just show up with a sunny face and say, “I didn’t say all that stuff I said the last two years. I don’t have that tax plan I had for the last two years. You going to believe me or your lying eyes here?” ’ ” Clinton giggled. “And if I’d been the president, I might have said, ‘Well, I hate to get in the way of this—I miss you.’ ”
Can Obama find a way to dismember Romney so artfully, joyfully, and thoroughly? Upon the answer may hang the outcome of the election—and no doubt Clinton, for the good of the country, hopes he will. Yet in strictly personal and political terms, the 2012 election is for Clinton a no-lose proposition. If Obama prevails, a decent hunk of the credit will accrue to Clinton, and precious little pleases him more than plaudits. But if Obama is defeated, the resulting objurgation will be heaped squarely on 44, and the only thing Clinton enjoys more than being credited is being blameless.
In either case, the outcome will likely have close to zero impact on what comes next for him, for that will be determined by his wife’s decision about 2016. To date, Hillary has been adamant, privately and publicly, in her refusal to broach the topic. She isn’t planning, isn’t deliberating, isn’t so much as contemplating another run for the White House, or so she says—though some of her former aides scoff at that. (“It’s a lie,” says one. “It’s always a lie.”)
But whatever the reality, this will not be a stance she’ll be able to maintain for long. Within months of her departure from the State Department early next year, the pressure for a yea or nay will begin to mount. And it will only be made more severe by the fact that Obama, in the words of one Democratic panjandrum, “couldn’t possibly be more disengaged from the question of party succession—he just doesn’t give a shit.”
The operating premise among most Democrats is that if Hillary does choose to dive in, the nomination will more than be hers for the taking: It will be handed to her on a silver salver, accorded her almost by acclamation. Yes, she was supposed to be inevitable in 2008. But this is four years later—four years in which she has been a ringingly successful secretary of State. Now that we’ve nominated and elected an African-American, goes the thinking in the party, the time is ripe for a woman. And she has earned it. And this will be her last chance. And she is … Hillary.
Given the mammoth scale of the dysfunction that afflicted her operation the last time around, one question about this scenario is what her campaign might look like. Certainly, it is a question of burning interest in Clintonworld. Would Hillary, for instance, bring back Mark Penn? For many of the sharpest and most skillful Clintonistas, doing so would be a poison pill. (“Everyone hopes she’d have more sense,” says a longtime FOB, “but Penn was there in the suite in Charlotte with her husband, which isn’t exactly reassuring.”)
An equally pertinent question revolves around the role that Bill himself would play. In 2008, his engagement was bipolar, borderline schizoid: at first, not involved enough, and then involved way too much. “It doesn’t necessarily need to be crazy town,” says a veteran of that campaign. “What helped drive him crazy was being locked out for all those months, so maybe if it’s a world where he is fully integrated, it would be much better.”
Further increasing the odds that Clinton could play a constructive role is what has taken place in 2012. “Part of the problem last time was that he hadn’t been on the field in a long time,” says one of his longtime advisers. “Politics had changed. He’d only been around people telling him how wonderful he was, and rich people. He’d lost his fastball. But now he’s been at it and stayed at it in the last couple years, and he’s got his pitch back—although he probably can’t go the full nine innings anymore.”
Even if Hillary elects not to run, Bill may keep his oar in the water—and there are signs that he would like to. “I think he enjoys having a relationship with Obama,” Neera Tanden says. “When I talk to people in the realm, I hear them trying to tell him, ‘You know this is going to end in November.’ And he’s kind of pushing back a little.”
Joel Johnson believes Clinton could help Obama (assuming he wins) with a renewed pursuit of a grand bargain on entitlements and taxes as Washington grapples right after the election with the so-called fiscal cliff. “It’s no secret that Obama was ready to go pretty far out on entitlement reform with Boehner,” says Johnson. “Who better to be a thought leader about that process than Clinton? In terms of making some of the hard decisions that Democrats are gonna have to make, and being able to talk about the beauty of a budget deal and what it can do for the economy. So I actually think he will have a postelection role in that intense period. The same credibility that he demonstrated in the convention speech can be applied to the legislative crisis that we’re going to be in in the next six to eight months.”
The idea of Clinton doing just that, or assisting his wife on her way to the White House, is appealing on a multitude of levels—just as his presence on the campaign trail now is impossible not to relish, almost regardless of your partisan inclinations. Clinton at his best has always been a wondrous spectacle to behold. The trick for him will be somehow to stay on the wave he’s riding, to resist the darker impulses and indisciplines that reliably in the past have sent him tumbling headlong into the surf.
“For those of us who have been around for a long time, we’re always worried about that, because, as they say in Gone With the Wind, tomorrow is another day,” muses Podesta. “Today, everyone’s in love with him. Tomorrow, who knows?”