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 didnt 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.