The relationship between Clinton and Obama has evolved in stages. The earliest step toward reconciliation might be the most telling: when Obama, as president-elect, asked Hillary Clinton to serve as secretary of state. She needed persuading, and in this case Obama and Bill Clinton were co-conspirators, both pushing the idea that she should take the job. If there were political calculations involved on either side, the simple fact that Hillary Clinton joined the Obama administration changed the dynamics; that she proved to be indefatigable and adept as Madam Secretary at once heartened her husband and deepened the appreciation of the president.
After two years during which they rarely spoke, the first public sign that Bill and Barack were teaming up on domestic policy issues came shortly after the 2010 midterm elections that proved disastrous for the Democrats, who lost control of the House and barely kept the Senate. Obama found himself making deals with House Republicans even before they took over, agreeing to some tax cuts in exchange for an extension of unemployment insurance.
On the afternoon of Dec. 11, Clinton visited the Oval Office, where he and Obama spent a long session discussing the policy and politics of the situation and how to explain the president’s position. It was, Obama said later, a “terrific conversation” — so stimulating that he thought “it might be useful” for Clinton to share his thoughts with the media and the public. Obama and Clinton seemed like tourists from Des Moines as they scrambled to find out how to open the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room in the White House and then round up enough reporters and cameras to make it worthwhile.
When the scene was finally ready, Obama entered with Clinton at his side. With a smile, he called Clinton “the other guy,” as in “I thought I’d bring the other guy in.” The word “guy” made it a term of affection and respect, marking a change from an earlier time when Obama would more often regard Clinton as simply “the other” — an unpredictable and occasionally hostile alien force. As Obama stood by, here and there making a point of his own, Clinton let loose with his pent-up insights and formulations on the economy, an issue that he said he spent at least an hour a day studying intensely, adding: “And I’m not running for anything.”
With the former president still talking, Obama soon enough excused himself and said he was under orders from his wife to leave for a Christmas party. Clinton kept at it, solo — an odd episode that prompted media speculation about a runaway ex-president plowing right over the president. It was not the first or last time that Clinton would keep talking while others went about other business, nor was it anything but what Obama wanted. His cool persona at times allows him not to worry about being upstaged. David Axelrod, his closest adviser, said it was a sign of how Obama is “centered and self-
assured.” Even so, once “the other guy” got in that old familiar room, there was no stopping him.