The Lingering Obama-Clinton Cold War
The midterms were a disaster. The G-20: a bust. So President Obama entered the weekend in desperate need of a bit of good news. He got some, at long last, on Saturday, thanks in large part to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, whose marathon negotiating session this week with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu resulted in a 90-day suspension of West Bank settlements—and the momentary revival of hope, however tenuous, for the Middle East peace process.
You could practically feel Obama’s sense of relief. Talking with reporters aboard Air Force One on the way home from his largely blighted Asia trip, the president termed the development “promising,” and praised Netanyahu “for taking, I think, a very constructive step.”
That Clinton would be the one to bail Obama out in his hour of need is a rich irony, indeed. She was, after all, his bitter rival in the Democratic primaries of 2008. She was the one who had to be coaxed into his Cabinet, when Obama tried to put the past behind them with his audacious “Team of Rivals” job offer. And she’s the one whose aides and supporters still have not entirely buried the bitter legacy of her defeat two years ago—the die-hard Clintonites who still dream of another shot at the White House two years hence.
Case in point: Doug Schoen, the polling partner of Clinton strategist Mark Penn, who urged President Obama to quit after one term as president in a Washington Post op-ed Saturday. Schoen, who is now a Fox News analyst, published the advice (headlined “One and Done”) on the same day Netanyahu was presenting Clinton’s deal to his cabinet in Jerusalem.
For the most part, Clinton and her boss have had an effective working relationship since she signed on as secretary of State—smooth and efficient, if not warm and influential. Clinton has faithfully executed the foreign policy handed down by a highly centralized White House. Yet she has not had nearly the impact on the president’s thinking and agenda as, say Defense Secretary Robert Gates, a Bush holdover.
As I write in my new book, Revival: The Struggle for Survival Inside the Obama White House, the Clinton-Obama relationship has moved forward despite lingering resentment and suspicions among aides to both principals struggling to let go of the past.
“The relationship, especially with Cheryl Mills, is bad,” said one senior Obama aide. “She behaved as if Obama is illegitimate.”
In the early stages of the administration, Obama’s aides described a polite, deferential interplay—one in which it was obvious who was following the leader. “She is certainly respectful and he is respectful of her. He was her biggest booster for the job, and his feeling was that we had an economic crisis and he needed a strong secretary of State to carry a big load. He believed that she could do it,” said one Obama confidant. “But I think it’s fair to say the president is the conceptual architect of his own foreign policy. He does that with the advice of those around him, and she is effectively executing it.” Indeed, some aides believed their working relationship was itself helpful as a practical lesson in politics to other countries. “I think one of the great stories of the administration is that it’s a great thing for the world to see two rivals join together the way they have,” said one senior aide. “It’s a great affirmation of our democracy.”
But some of Obama and Clinton’s own aides seemed to believe that the contest was still playing out. West Wing officials disliked dealing with Clinton’s loyalists at the State Department, especially the former White House lawyer Cheryl Mills. Mills was known for her combative style and had proved difficult to negotiate with as the two campaigns came together once the primaries ended in mid-2008. Mills was now Clinton’s chief of staff at the State Department, and there were several early disputes over the control and allegiances of key appointments, including ambassadors and assistant secretaries. “The relationship, especially with Cheryl Mills, is bad,” said one senior Obama aide. “She behaved as if Obama is illegitimate. They think we’re screwing them, when we’re not, by having our own people over there.”
At the State Department, officials said the disputes had eased over time, as the debate moved from personnel to policy. “Cheryl vigorously represents the secretary of State in the inter-agency process,” said one senior State Department official. “There were some tensions earlier but we are largely past that.” Such tensions and suspicions seemed more like the remnants of 2008 than a harbinger of things to come, and Obama’s senior staffers dismissed speculation about Clinton running for president again. “I don’t think she will run for president,” said one close Obama aide. “It takes a lot out of you. It’s a brutal, brutal thing. Anyone who has been through it will not undertake it again lightly. By the time he’s done, she’s going to be almost 70 years old.”
Still, there were some rare moments of warmth. The day after health care passed through the House, Clinton and Obama were in the Situation Room together for a national-security meeting. Clinton smiled and threw her arms around him, before hugging others in the room. “I’m so happy,” she said simply. Her former rival had managed to achieve what she failed to accomplish in her husband’s White House. “It was a genuinely moving moment,” said one observer in the room. “It was a great moment. I don’t think it was obsequious. It was a genuine expression of her own feelings.”
The evolving relationship with Clinton stands in contrast to the president’s chemistry with Defense Secretary Gates, who endeared himself to Obama early on—with a quiet, efficient, and practical demeanor that matched the president’s. “He’s Yoda,” declared one Cabinet official early on, referring to the diminutive Jedi master in the Star Wars movies.
Gates seemed to share Obama’s nonideological and highly pragmatic approach to foreign policy and national security, and their relationship was as close as a professional bond could be. “There’s a lot of mutual respect,” said Denis McDonough. “They are both very levelheaded and calm decision-makers. They are busy and impatient to get things done. So it’s a very businesslike relationship, in a good way, which means they have a lot of trust in each other’s judgment and commitment to do what they say they will do.” Obama had little contact with Gates before winning the election. As a junior senator on the Foreign Relations Committee, he had no reason to be close to the defense secretary. Their real contact began as the election drew to a close.
But once inside the Obama Cabinet, Gates thrived. “No one is more valued and trusted by the president on the national-security team than Gates,” said one campaign aide and current national-security staffer. “The Afghan review went in the direction of Gates’ position.”
Richard Wolffe is a Daily Beast columnist and an award-winning journalist. He covered the entire length of Barack Obama's presidential campaign for Newsweek magazine. His book about the election, Renegade: The Making of a President, was a New York Times bestseller in 2009. His new book, Revival: The Struggle for Survival Inside the Obama White House, is published in November.