Bill Clinton and Barack Obama: Campaign Trail Buddies at Last

By
Photo: Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

It was viciously, teeth-chatteringly cold late Saturday night at the Jiffy Lube Live ampitheater in Bristow, Virginia, not long before the clock struck twelve. After amassing over the course of several hours in massive lines that snaked haphazardly through the parking lot outside, some 24,000 Democrats sat shivering and waiting at Barack Obama's final rally in the Old Dominion of 2012. For the press corps, there was no power; at first, there weren't even any chairs. But none of those things were what made the wait unbearable. That honor belonged to the warm-up act, the ever-execrable Dave Matthews, who at one point uttered a sentence that, coming from him, was so horrific it chills my soul to restate it now: "I'm gonna play a few more."

What could possibly compel a sane person to put up with all of this? The chance to see Obama on stage with Bill Clinton, duh.

Four years ago, there was only one joint appearance of the current and the previous Democratic president — at an event in Kissimmee, Florida, where the chill in the air was matched by the frostiness evident between the two men. But a lot has changed since then, and today, while the personal vibe between them is not exactly toasty, the two are working hand in glove in the service of Obama's reelection. Taking the stage to introduce his successor, Clinton, hoarse and raspy, announced, "As you can see, I have given my voice in the service of my president" — and then added, in the same awkward and loaded phrase he'd been using at his solo appearances previously, that "I am much more enthusiastic about Barack Obama’s election tonight than I was even four years ago." A little while later, Obama returned the favor, calling Clinton "the master," "a great president and a great friend."

However one judges the accuracy of those sobriquets, there is no question that Clinton has been a terrific and tireless advocate for Obama — the Maximum Canine as Surrogate Supreme. In the past seven weeks, 42 has headlined 37 rallies on 44's behalf, and stepped in aggressively to fill the campaign-trail void when Obama was otherwise occupied last week with Hurricane Sandy. This past weekend alone, Clinton enacted nine solo gigs and another joint appearance with Obama in New Hampshire. In every instance, the case that Clinton makes for Obama is forceful, colorful, and unrestrained, all wit and variation on his address at the Democratic National Convention — a tour de force that one of Obama's senior advisers labels flatly "the single most important moment of the campaign."

That assessment is quite possibly true, but also offered in a spirit of generosity and gratitude at stark odds with the rawness and bitterness that still lingered among the Obamans toward WJC even two years ago. What eased the strain was, to be sure, the passage of time, and also the strength of the relationship between Obama and Hillary Clinton, whose loyalty and dedication to the president have earned her universal respect from those inside his orbit. But the greatest force for change, in fact, was the dawning recognition on the part of Obama's people that, in the face of a tough reelection fight, they needed Clinton — not only as economic validator but also to reach the white working- and middle-class voters with whom Obama has always been weakest. And the frank and flattering expression of his importance to the cause was all it took to have the Big Dog straining at his leash — for as his biographer David Maraniss has observed, the core truth about Clinton is that he "loves to be needed as much as he needs to be loved."

That admixture was on vivid display in Bristow. Dressed in a brown leather baby-boomer's bomber's jacket, Clinton lit up the stage, wallowing in the applause, praising Obama to the skies — and reveling in an evisceration of Mitt Romney that was all the more brutal for its light-heartedness and humor. Riffing on Romney's corelessness, he cited the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act:  "Now, this law has been on the books for a couple of years now. And when Mitt Romney, who wants to be the 'decider-in-chief,' was asked ... well, governor, would you have signed the bill? (Long pause — laughter.)  I mean, folks, he’s going to have a lot harder decisions than this! I mean, there's a law; it’s been there; there's an answer to this question.  You can answer yes, or you can answer no.  But when you are the 'decider-in-chief,' you can't just shuffle along." And then turned in the same vein to the auto bailout: "Barack Obama decided that America could not afford to let the automobile industry die, and he saved it. And Mitt Romney opposed what he did.  And now he keeps trying to — he’s tied himself in so many knots over this automobile deal, he could be hired as the chief contortionist for the Cirque du Soleil. But he was against it."

When Clinton finished, Obama mounted the podium and commenced his encomiums. "Hello, Virginia!," Obama declaimed. "Are you fired up?  Are you ready to go?  You've got to be fired up after Bill Clinton ... The only problem is, I was in the back — I was enjoying listening to President Clinton so much, I had to run up to get my cue. I was sitting there, just soaking it all in."

The speech that Obama then uncorked was every bit as good as the one that Clinton gave and in some ways better, and I'll have more to say about his closing argument tomorrow. But having been there on that night in October 2008 in Kissimmee, when the body language between the two of them was simply awful, I'll just note that what happened when Obama finished was something to see: the two men hugging warmly up on stage, as the sound system kicked in with Fleetwood Mac's "Don't Stop (Thinking About Tomorrow)" — not just a nod to the past but a subtle sign of respect that would have been inconceivable four years ago.

Heading out to the parking lot, I checked my e-mail and found a surprise: an announcement that Clinton would be spending Monday — today, that is — making four stops in ... Pennsylvania. With Republicans suddenly arguing that the Keystone State was in play and pouring ad dollars into its main media markets, the fact that Clinton was headed there — for four stops! — raised the possibility that maybe, just maybe, the Obama campaign was seeing signs of movement too. Or, on the other hand, that it was simply playing it safe and vigilant, leaving nothing to chance.

So which was it? I had my suspicions. But soon enough, I would find out for myself — since I'd be spending the next day with Romney, who was headed there himself.