After Sen. Barack Obama emerged as the winner of the Democratic nomination, he announced that he’d be glad to meet Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton at the time and place of her choosing.
But now that Clinton has conceded defeat and endorsed Obama, he’s the one choosing the time and place. And the central choice he faces is whether he can — and wants to — win with the Clinton legacy.
Despite widespread speculation about the Clintons’ feelings and motives, the reality is that they have few options: They have to do whatever Obama wants. Hillary Clinton’s political future, and her husband’s legacy, rest on the perception that they are working as hard as they can for the first African-American presidential nominee, whether he wins or loses.
“President Clinton will do anything he can and is asked to help make sure Sen. Obama wins in November,” said an aide to the former president, echoing statements from Sen. Clinton. “He's going to work hard to help put Sen. Obama in the White House.”
So the most important choices belong to Obama. The first was to stage their initial joint event in Unity, N.H., and for Obama to embrace Hillary Clinton without immediately engaging her husband. The reconciliation with the New York senator is a requisite political act with a figure whose campaign, though it leaned heavily on the legacy of the 1990s, also carved out for her a new identity clearly rooted in the present.
“I think it’s pretty easy to fold Hillary Clinton into a message of change,” said Bob Shrum, who was chief adviser to Sen. John F. Kerry's 2004 Democratic presidential campaign.
Finding a role for her husband is a slightly trickier endeavor. For one thing, he appears to be engaged in a bit of a standoff with the nominee: The two men haven’t spoken on the telephone, aides to both said, since Obama clinched the nomination, although as the last Democratic president and one of the party’s preeminent minds, Bill Clinton would be an obvious call.
But any sense of personal pique masks a substantive argument that weighs against including the former president. During the primary, Obama repeated over and over the need to “turn the page” on decades of political division — decades which pointedly included the 1990s, regarded by Clinton’s camp as a golden era of peace and prosperity.
Obama at times attacked more directly. In one mailing shortly before the Feb. 5 Super Tuesday primaries, Obama summed up the political impact of the Clinton presidency.
“Eight years of the Clintons, major losses for Democrats across the nation,” the mailing said.
Bill Clinton, by contrast, argued internally that his wife should rest her campaign in large part on his accomplishments and on nostalgia for the 1990s.
He spent much of his time on the campaign trail defending his legacy against the charge that, as he put it last summer in Iowa, the Clintons “are sort of yesterday’s news.”
“Well, yesterday’s news was pretty good,” he told his Iowa audience.
The close primary results demonstrated the power of Obama’s message, but Hillary Clinton’s success in attracting working-class Democrats also showed the strength of voters’ nostalgia for the 1990s. Now, Obama must choose whether to fully embrace Bill Clinton and his strategic vision for a Democratic Party built on his own accomplishments or to deliberately leave a distance between himself and the most successful Democratic president in decades.
“There’s a way to walk that line without papering over the problems of the '90s, but at the same time not attacking Bill Clinton personally,” said Dan Gerstein, a consultant whose clients include Connecticut independent Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman.
“Obama is a figure of synthesis with, not antagonism to, the Clinton legacy,” said Kn Baer, a former speechwriter for Al Gore who now serves as the editor of Democracy, a left-leaning policy journal. “He unites the accomplishments and insights of the New Democrats with the new realities of this century.”
Obama has just begun to navigate those waters. The partisan hue of the general election has led him to narrow the focus of his attacks to the last eight years, in an effort to link presumptive Republican nominee Sen. John McCain to President Bush. But he hasn’t taken any symbolic or substantive steps to reconnect to the Clinton era, reaching back instead to the legacy of John F. Kennedy, whose daughter, Caroline, he chose to lead his vice presidential search.
And JFK may provide a model in another way, Shrum said.
“There is this sense of moving to a new day,” he said. “You can respect and honor like JFK did the New Deal; that doesn’t mean what you’re offering is a repetition of the New Deal.”
For now, Obama seems to be carefully mending his bridges back to the 20th century. At a press conference in Chicago Wednesday, the presumptive nominee said Bill Clinton wouldn’t appear with his wife in Unity only because he didn’t want the former president to “upstage” his wife.
He went on to offer unusually fulsome praise of the Clinton years.
"I want him involved," Obama said. "He is a brilliant politician. He was an outstanding president. So I want his help not only in campaigning but also in governing, and I’m confident I will get that help."