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.”