If Obama wins, it may be because the former president saved his presidencyâbut 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 tĂȘte-Ă -tĂȘte between the soon-to-be president and the former one since the unpleasantness of the ÂDemocratic nomination contest, and feelings on both sides were still raw and fraught with suspicion. Clintonâs staff had wanted to include a Harlem stroll and Âphoto op as part of the visit, but Obamaâs people demurredâa 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 Clintonâs shoes.
In truth, neither side was delighted at the prospect of Clinton stumping for Obama. The latterâs team believed that he wouldnât 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 primariesâin particular over Obamaâs assertion, before the Nevada caucuses, that âRonald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that âŠ Bill Clinton did not.â On countless conference calls with his wifeâs 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 Obamaâs genuine opinion. âHe would have been less angry if he thought it was tactical,â a former Clinton aide remembers. âBut he thought Obama actually believed he was a shitty president.â
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. Clintonâs speech on that frosty night was emphatic, at times hyperactive. âFolks, we canât fool with this!â he declared. âOur country is hanging in the balance; this man should be our president!â 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 councilmanâor a former president whose vaunted rhetorical gifts were inferior to his own. âHe thought it was fine,â recalls a senior Obama adviser. âWe 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.â