that happened

The Time Clinton Took Over Obama’s White House Podium and Stayed Awhile

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer. Photo: Getty Images

Groundhog Day came a bit early, and a bit retro, for Democrats this year. “Bill and Hillary peek their heads out,” reads the headline of Friday’s Politico Playbook. It goes on to report that former president Bill Clinton and former presidential nominee Hillary Clinton have emerged from their hibernation and saw “an opportunity to insert themselves back into political life.” With President Joe Biden’s agenda stalled, the pair hopes to “flex their centrist, dealmaking brand of politics” to usher it through Congress and deliver Democrats from midterm disaster. Per Politico:

Bill Clinton has relished the opportunity to whip on behalf of the White House. In addition to pressing Manchin on the filibuster, Clinton suggested that he should salvage Build Back Better by zeroing in on the few elements the West Virginia senator really wants.

“I told Joe, ‘Break it up, pick one or two [pieces] you can swallow and then run on the rest,’” Clinton recalled of their phone call, a person with knowledge of the conversation told Playbook. The idea is drawing interest among party leadership.

Clinton also spoke with Sinema recently, according to one of the people familiar with the call, and said afterward, “I don’t know her, but I like her.”

The Clintons have gotten a lot of flak for their efforts to remain relevant despite Hillary’s 2016 loss and the reappraisal of Bill’s conduct in light of the Me Too movement as well as new revelations about his relationship with Jeffrey Epstein. These efforts are often cringe-inducing, like Hillary’s MasterClass on “the power of resilience” or their new idea to revive the Clinton Global Initiative’s “annual star-studded confab,” as reported in Playbook. But their attempt to rescue Biden’s imperiled agenda actually seems … fine? Even smart? It puts their connections and influence to good use, and the Democrats’ filibuster reform and Build Back Better initiatives are in such bad shape that things can’t get much worse.

However, there is one small potential drawback that Biden should keep in mind when letting the “Big Dog” loose to plug his agenda: He can be a little too eager. Clinton memorably demonstrated this in December 2010 when he was invited to join then-President Barack Obama in the White House Briefing Room. It seems the plan was for Clinton to make a quick cameo to plug Obama’s tax-cut deal with Republicans. “I’m going to let him speak very briefly,” Obama said after delivering his own stiff remarks for a few minutes.

Instead, Clinton took over the podium and held court for about half an hour, hanging around well after Obama exited to attend a holiday party.
“First of all, I feel awkward being here, and now you’re going to leave me all by myself?” Clinton joked, drawing a laugh from Obama. The former president said he still spent “about an hour a day trying to study this economy” and went on to prove it, pontificating about the deal’s benefits for about nine minutes before taking his first question from a reporter.

Obama, who had been standing off to the side of the podium with an amused look on his face, took the opportunity to make his exit. “I’ve been keeping the First Lady waiting for about half an hour, so I’m going to take off,” he said.

“Well, I don’t want to make her mad,” Clinton joked. “Please go.”

As he left, Obama said Robert Gibbs, his press secretary, would “call ‘last question.’” It turns out this was a smart move because Clinton kept going, leaning over the podium as he comfortably called on reporters by name. For the next 20 minutes, Clinton fielded about a dozen questions on a variety of topics from Haiti to a new START treaty. One reporter noted that Clinton seemed to be more comfortable giving advice than governing. “Oh, I had quite a good time governing,” Clinton responded. “I am happy to be here, I suppose, when the bullets that are fired are unlikely to hit me, unless they’re just ricocheting.”

It doesn’t seem Obama, famously less extroverted than his predecessor, minded being upstaged. Two years later, Obama turned to Clinton to help boost his 2012 reelection bid, famously dubbing him his “secretary of explaining stuff.” Clinton made campaign appearances across the country, helmed fundraisers, and delivered an impressive convention speech; at the time, one top Obama aide described it to New York as “the most important moment of the campaign so far.”

Biden should remember that deploying Clinton as your unofficial understudy can be quite effective. He’s prepared, he’s smooth, and he’s usually available. You just have to tell him when to take a bow.

The Time Clinton Took Over Obama’s White House Podium