For days, Barack Obama did not step foot in public without praising Hillary Rodham Clinton. Even on Wednesday, less than 12 hours after Clinton delivered a defiant non-concession speech with more than a few eyebrow-raising lines, Obama was still at it, extolling her history-making run.
But an awkward reality hung over what was supposed to be the first day of the general election campaign—even after news broke Wednesday evening that Clinton would be dropping out of the race Friday. Like a family groping to move past a feud, Obama appeared eager to make up and Clinton seemed to want little part of a public coming together.
She took the stage Wednesday at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference – minutes after Obama spoke from the same dais – and barely mentioned him, vouching only for his commitment to Israel. Associates elsewhere in Washington were floating her name for vice president, yet Clinton did not even acknowledge that most of the political world had conferred the presidential nomination on her opponent.
The uneasy dance put the Obama campaign in a fix. Even in their moment of triumph, aides were still navigating the Clinton waters, underscoring the extent to which Obama may not be able to fully immerse himself in the general election campaign until the New York senator steps out of the race.
President Bush, through his spokesman, congratulated Obama for his “historic achievement.” Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice did the same. Clinton supporters were coalescing around Obama. But nothing came from the candidate herself – at least not publicly.
Obama aides, while rolling their eyes in private at the tone of Clinton’s speech, could not seem to distance themselves enough from questions about the state of the relationship. They declined to describe the senator’s reaction to the speech, which he watched backstage at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn.
Press aides were told not to comment on the speech, which did more to whip up her supporters than encourage party unity. Clinton congratulated Obama for an “extraordinary” race and called him a friend, but those lines were overshadowed by others. She sounded very much like a candidate, reiterating the claim that she’s won more votes than any primary candidate in history and eliciting cheers from the audience of “Denver, Denver,” the site of the Democratic National Convention in August.
David Axelrod, Obama’s chief strategist, shrugged his shoulders when asked aboard the campaign plane early Wednesday morning from St. Paul to Washington D.C. whether the speech bothered Obama.
“We are mindful of the fact that they have gone through an epic struggle,” Axelrod said. “It is challenging. There are hard feelings.”
Axelrod almost seemed prepared for the less-than-conciliatory posture, saying earlier Tuesday that he “wouldn’t begrudge anyone those feelings. People invested in Clinton’s candidacy have every right to be unhappy tonight … and nobody would deny that.”
Confronted by reporters at the Capitol, Obama didn’t take the opportunity to criticize.
“I thought Sen. Clinton, after a long-fought campaign, was understandably focused on her supporters,” Obama said Wednesday. “I just spoke to her today, and we are going to be having a conversation in the coming weeks. I am very confident about how unified the Democratic Party is going to be to win in November.”
Obama and Clinton spoke briefly by phone after their speeches Tuesday, and again Wednesday, when they crossed paths behind stage at the AIPAC conference.
Asked whether Clinton had given him any indication that she’d be dropping out of the race, Obama said: “It wasn’t a detailed conversation.”
The peace-making approach from a campaign that is usually quick to defend – and from a canidate who occasionally seems thin-skinned– reflected the belief that there was no benefit to engaging in a public spat with Clinton.
“This is a time to move on and not look back to the primary,” said Linda Douglass, a senior adviser.
Obama aides said Clinton deserved to make decisions on her own timetable.
“How much time has it been, really? It’s only been a few hours,” Douglass said Wednesday afternoon. “He is very much opposed to pressure in this situation, any pressure on anybody. What is the point? It has only been a few hours. She ran this spectacular campaign and she has a right to proceed here as she chooses.”
If Obama was irked after Clinton’s speech, he wasn’t showing it early Wednesday morning aboard his campaign plane. He stood in the front cabin, surrounded by close Chicago friends and immersed in conversations that prompted smiles and laughter.
He was happy, supporters said, but reluctant to celebrate.
"You don't cut down the nets at the conference finals," Obama said twice last night, according to his friend and fundraiser, James Crown.
But even when news reports circulated early Wednesday evening that Clinton would drop out of the race Friday, the initial reaction was muted.
"No comment," said an Obama aide.
The Clinton campaign had not yet made contact with the Obama campaign, said another aide outside an evening fundraiser in Manhattan.
Daniel W. Reilly contributed to this report.