Obama finds key support in former foe: Bill Clinton

David Maraniss / The Washington Post /

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Four years ago in Denver, Bill Clinton was given the assignment of making the world believe that he liked Barack Obama and wanted him to be president. As one longtime confidant put it, “He had to go out there and say, ‘Yeah, Obama beat the blank out of me and my wife, but still, you should be with him.’ ”

But that was then.

On Wednesday night here, Clinton will be tasked with a mission that has largely frustrated Obama: cut through the political clutter and clarify the choice in November.

Explain, in his inimitable way, in language that persuadable voters in middle-class America can understand, what Obama has accomplished and why his economic policies would pull the nation out of tough times and the Republican alternatives would not.

There is nothing formulaic about Clinton’s presence at the Democratic National Convention this year.

He is not just another old presidential war horse being trotted out for nostalgia or a staged show of unity. When Obama called in late July to say he would be grateful if his Democratic predecessor would give the speech placing his name in nomination, something that no former commander in chief has done before, it was an acknowledgment of how much the sitting president needs the former president. And Clinton, who loves to be needed as much as he needs to be loved, responded with an enthusiasm and diligence that served as yet another signal to people close to both men that an old wound has for the most part been healed.

“He is honored that Obama asked him to do it,” said Terry McAuliffe, a former Democratic National Committee chairman. In late August, McAuliffe spent a few days with the Clintons at a beach house in East Hampton, N.Y., and said his close friend seemed obsessed with the convention assignment, continually bringing up books and quotes and ideas he was sifting through. “This speech is very important to him. He has taken the burden and put it on his shoulders.”

Clinton writes own speech

The convention speech, which people around Clinton say he is largely writing himself, is part of a full-scale Bill Clinton offensive that includes a series of political ads — now playing in key swing states — that feature the former president offering snippets of the themes he will expand on on Wednesday.

Obama’s team views this in the most positive light, noting Clinton’s talents and soaring popularity, but history shows the occasional dangers. In late May, as the Obama campaign was pounding away at GOP challenger Mitt Romney’s role at Bain Capital, Clinton said of the private-equity firm, “I don’t think we ought to get into a position where we say this is bad work. This is good work.”

If he was all too public in his critique, it was classic Clinton as campaign manager, sending the message to the Obama team that there are ways to go after working-class voters without alienating the financial industry, a subtlety he mastered during his heyday.

The Clinton-Obama divide four years ago was political and personal. It began during the intense and at times nasty primary campaign between Obama and Hillary Clinton as intimations of racism were thrown back and forth, a sure sign of competitive overreaching involving two men (the former president was asserting himself in his wife’s campaign at that point) with strong though different bona fides on matters of race — Clinton so empathetic that he was once called the first black president; Obama on his way to becoming the real first black president. That campaign-season animosity was accentuated by diametrically disparate individual styles. Presidents 42 and 44, separated in age by 15 years on opposite ends of the baby-boom generation, have been called matter and anti-matter, fire and ice, extrovert and introvert.

Stylistic opposites

Clinton could spend five minutes in a Dunkin’ Donuts in Concord, N.H., and meet a stranger whose face and name and life story he could still recall two decades later. Obama spent four introspective years in New York without making a single lasting friend.

Obama seems content to relax late at night alone in the White House residence watching ESPN’s SportsCenter. Clinton doesn’t like to be alone and has been known to call a pal so that they can watch a televised basketball game together hundreds of miles apart while on the telephone. Man, you see that move?

Clinton, even though once considered a boy wonder, rose the slow, traditional way, demonstrating a lifelong love of politics. He revealed his ambitions early, running for every office he could at Hot Springs High School in Arkansas until his principal declared it enough and told him he could not run for class president. He ran for secretary instead — and lost to a girlfriend. He was so bothered by that loss that he temporarily stopped talking to her. Not many things can bring Clinton to silence. The high school trend continued in college, and then into electoral politics. He took his first office as attorney general of Arkansas at age 28, reaching the governorship two years later and serving 12 years in that job, building a national reputation along the way, before running for president in 1992.

Obama in high school played basketball, smoked some pot and showed no political inclinations whatsoever. He ran for no offices then or in college at Occidental and Columbia, and was 35 years old when he entered the Illinois state Senate. Eight years in Springfield and two as a U.S. senator, and suddenly he was running for president.

Their differences of style are far less important than matters of substance, although Clinton’s freewheeling exuberance has occasionally troubled the cautious Obama, and Obama’s seeming insularity at times has befuddled Clinton, friends of both men say. In a sense, they start and end in similar places.

On the biography side, they came from remote places (southwest Arkansas and Hawaii), rose from family dysfunction, grew up without knowing their biological fathers, and made their own way to political heights against the odds. On the political side, on most of the big issues, there is little or no space between them as pragmatic liberals, although Clinton was able to craft a clearer ideological definition as a proponent of a new Democratic “third way.”

One former Clinton adviser, assessing the former president’s perspective on Obama, said, “I sense he thinks that Obama gets all the hard stuff right, but doesn’t do the easy stuff at all. And it mystifies him.” Clinton, for instance, was wowed by how Obama put together a successful health-care package, something the former president failed at, yet was confounded by Obama’s inability to go around the country and sell it.

Evolving relationship

The relationship between Clinton and Obama has evolved in stages. The earliest step toward reconciliation might be the most telling: when Obama, as president-elect, asked Hillary Clinton to serve as secretary of state. She needed persuading, and in this case Obama and Bill Clinton were co-conspirators, both pushing the idea that she should take the job.

If there were political calculations involved on either side, the simple fact that Hillary Clinton joined the Obama administration changed the dynamics; that she proved to be indefatigable and adept as Madam Secretary at once heartened her husband and deepened the appreciation of the president.

After two years during which they rarely spoke, the first public sign that Bill and Barack were teaming up on domestic policy issues came shortly after the 2010 midterm elections that proved disastrous for the Democrats, who lost control of the House and barely kept the Senate. Obama found himself making deals with House Republicans even before they took over, agreeing to some tax cuts in exchange for an extension of unemployment insurance.

There was always intermingling, never a clean divide between Clinton people and Obama people, and enough former Clinton aides who went on to work for Obama.

A delegation of Obama campaign advisers and pollsters made a pilgrimage to Clinton’s Harlem headquarters to get his take on the campaign. They brought their polling data and computer models and laid out the information for him on Nov. 11, describing what they were learning about the voters, all the intimate details of what they intended to do, and asked for his advice.

He told them to forget about attacking Romney as a flip-flopper. That would backfire, he warned, and give comfort to swing voters who wanted to dump Obama.

“They treated him like the political genius that he is, and he loved that,” one associate said. “This was great. You reach out to him and he becomes invested in the cause.”

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