By Philip Rucker and Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, May 28, 2010; 11:05 PM
After Barack Obama won the White House, he and his aides wrestled for weeks over what to do about Bill Clinton if his wife joined the administration. They worried that the irrepressible former president might overshadow Hillary Rodham Clinton, or even Obama himself. That didn't happen. Now, 18 months later, he has become indispensable in a way the new president probably did not anticipate.
Clinton has become the "Michael Clayton" of the Obama White House, a roving, always on-call fixer who lends his political skills to help Obama and the Democrats in tough situations. Clinton is campaigning and raising money in places where Obama is less (or less than) welcome. And, as was revealed Friday, he has been an intermediary on sensitive, off-the-grid conversations with candidates such as Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.), whom he tried -- on behalf of the White House -- to talk out of running for the Senate.
One of Clinton's lowest political moments as president was when his party lost both houses of Congress in 1994. Now, with Obama's Democratic majority similarly imperiled, 44 is turning to 42 for help. In a toxic environment where candidates are running away from the establishment, Clinton has swooped in to Arizona, Georgia, Massachusetts, New Mexico, New York and Pennsylvania, and he is expected to make more stops before November's midterm elections.
Republicans have taken notice, suggesting that Clinton might play a bigger role this cycle than Obama. "President Obama spends his days in the Oval Office, but it appears, more and more, that he has no idea how to use it," said GOP strategist Kevin Madden. "Bill Clinton isn't in the Oval Office these days, but he knows how to use the presidency."
Clinton's relationship with Obama was strained through much of the 2008 campaign, but things between them improved when Obama appointed Hillary Rodham Clinton secretary of state. Obama's chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, a former Clinton aide and confidant, helped ease the tension. Clinton and Obama have appeared together at least 11 times since Obama's inauguration, including on Thursday, when the two lunched at the White House.
Mark Critz, the Democrat who ran for a vacant House seat in a socially conservative western Pennsylvania district, embraced Clinton at a Johnstown campaign rally just 36 hours before the polls opened. "He understands how to connect votes people cast in Washington with lives people live in Johnstown," Clinton said in Johnstown. "That's what you need in the Congress."
Critz won the May 18 special election to replace the late Rep. John P. Murtha (D) by a surprise eight percentage points.
In Arkansas, Sen. Blanche Lincoln, forced into a runoff for the Democratic nomination, turned to Clinton to help rescue her candidacy. Obama endorsed her, but has not visited. Yet Lincoln welcomed Clinton back to his home state, where the two campaigned together Friday.
Last November, as the debate on Obama's health-care overhaul opened, Emanuel and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) asked Clinton to visit the Capitol to make a closing pitch to nervous Democrats.
When the White House tried to persuade Sestak to abandon his primary race against Sen. Arlen Specter, Clinton was considered the natural person to turn to. Sestak had worked for Clinton's National Security Council and still considers him a political hero. In fact, Sestak said he was with Clinton the day Specter announced he was switching parties to become a Democrat. Sestak was at the former president's Washington home, seeking his advice about challenging Specter in the general election, not realizing the longtime incumbent was switching parties.
Sestak's eyes lit up on the Capitol steps Friday as he recalled his bond with Clinton. When Sestak's 5-year-old daughter Alexandra was diagnosed with a brain tumor, Clinton called him. "Is that the president?" she asked. "Can I talk to him?"
"He literally talked to her for five minutes," Sestak recalled.
A different phone call is what landed Clinton back in the news Friday. Emanuel asked Clinton to try to talk Sestak out of running. Clinton obliged. "You've done well in the House, with your military background you can really make your mark there," Clinton told Sestak last July, according to the lawmaker's recollection.
Sestak said Clinton briefly brought up Emanuel's suggestion that if Sestak dropped out he might end up on a presidential advisory board for the Pentagon or the intelligence community. Sestak flatly turned him down.
"I knew you'd say that," Clinton replied. Even the master can't fix everything.
Research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.