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Obama should listen to Bill Clinton

By Michael Takiff, Special to CNN
May 1, 2012 -- Updated 2016 GMT (0416 HKT)
Mutual interest has pushed President Obama and former President Clinton together, says Michael Takiff.
Mutual interest has pushed President Obama and former President Clinton together, says Michael Takiff.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • President Obama has actively embraced Bill Clinton for help on raising money and gaining voters
  • Michael Takiff: Obama needs Clinton in his campaign, Clinton craves political relevance
  • He says four years ago, Obama drove the former president crazy
  • Takiff: Whatever his feelings toward Bill Clinton, Obama should listen to him

Editor's note: Michael Takiff is the author of "A Complicated Man: The Life of Bill Clinton as Told by Those Who Know Him" (Yale University Press). Follow him on Twitter.

(CNN) -- At the beginning of 2008, everything seemed set for Bill Clinton. His wife, Hillary, had the money and the endorsements to run for the presidency. She also had the experience and the talismanic Democratic last name. Everything was in place for Bill's return to the White House, this time as first gentleman.

Then came Iowa, when the supposedly unstoppable Hillary for president locomotive was derailed by Barack Obama, a first-term senator from Illinois. Bill Clinton couldn't believe that this Johnny-come-lately might block his wife's path to the White House.

Bill Clinton and Barack Obama may be making common cause now, but four years ago the future president drove the former president crazy.

Michael Takiff
Michael Takiff

Obama's sins in the eyes of Bill Clinton in 2008 were numerous and grievous: He denied Hillary a shot at the Oval Office that Bill believed she earned and he attacked Bill by playing the race card, or so Bill believed.

In reality, Clinton played the race card on himself when he compared Obama's victory in the South Carolina primary to Jesse Jackson's wins there in 1984 and 1988. Perhaps Clinton's intent was to isolate Obama as the "black candidate"; perhaps not, but an uproar ensued, deeply wounding the man who had been beloved by African-American voters throughout his political career.

Obama had even gone so far as to compare Bill Clinton unfavorably to Ronald Reagan, saying that Reagan had "changed the trajectory" of the nation "in a way that Bill Clinton did not." The nerve of this whippersnapper, ranking the first Democratic president since FDR to serve two full terms below the hero of the opposition party -- the party that had tried to throw that Democratic president out of office.

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By drawing that contrast, Obama was consciously baiting Bill, secure in the knowledge that as Hillary's campaign brain trust, his outbursts -- about Reagan, about the "fairy tale" of Obama's pure opposition to the Iraq War, about the "race card" -- were doing harm to his wife's campaign.

But Obama's biggest offense was simply that he was seeking to replace Bill Clinton as first in the hearts of the Democratic faithful. And he was doing it courtesy of a free ride from the media -- nothing like the trial by fire that Bill had undergone in 1992.

Once the nomination fight ended, Hillary was quick to dismiss her ill feelings toward Obama. But insiders say Bill nursed his grudge, only slowly releasing it as his wife took office as Obama's secretary of state.

The coldness between the 42nd and 44th presidents persisted well into Obama's first term. Obama sought to set the nation's course on his own, without interference from the man who he said had not achieved the kind of transformative presidency to which he aspired. Within the Democratic Party, the two men were still rivals. It's no accident that Clinton has had a much warmer relationship with both Presidents Bush than he has had with Obama; he and the Bushes are not seeking approval from the same audience.

Now, however, mutual interest has pushed Bill and Barack together. While no one would confuse them for best friends, Obama needs Clinton's access to deep Democratic pockets and his appeal to white blue-collar voters, who are more attuned to Bill's messy I-feel-your-pain empathy than to the professorial coolness of Obama.

For his part, Bill craves political relevance. In the 11-plus years of his post-presidency, he has succeeded in securing both public acclaim, for his work on AIDS, and private enrichment, pulling down well into six figures for a single speech. But talking to 10,000 people at a gathering of furniture-industry representatives, no matter how high the remuneration, can't compare to influencing a presidential election -- or, for that matter, to pressing the flesh in a high-school gymnasium packed with adoring fans.

What's more, if Hillary does follow the advice Bill is certain to whisper in her ear and run for the presidency in 2016, when she will be 69, the party chits he is now amassing will certainly come in handy.

Bill Clinton's political advice to Obama to focus less on likely GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney's inconsistency and more on his devotion to "severe" conservatism comes directly from the Clinton playbook of 1995-96. After the drubbing he took in the 1994 midterms, Clinton revived his fortunes by depicting his Republican opponents in Congress, led by Speaker Newt Gingrich, as a band of radical ideologues seeking to knock down the underpinnings of middle-class American life, and himself as the only thing stopping them.

The strategy succeeded. When the government shut down in late 1995, the public blamed Gingrich. Seeking the president's re-election, the Clinton campaign hung the unpopular speaker around the neck of the Republican nominee, Bob Dole, and that was that.

Obama has the opportunity to position himself as the reasonable centrist seeking to save the nation from the depredations it would suffer were a radical opposition to gain unchecked power. He has plenty of material to work with -- the Republicans in power today make the ones Clinton faced seem like Swedish socialists.

It's good advice. Whatever his feelings toward Bill Clinton, Obama should listen to him.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Michael Takiff.

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