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The Obama-Clinton Dynamic


Tomorrow night, President Barack Obama will appear at two glitzy fundraisers in New York. At his side will be former President Bill Clinton, both darlings of the Democrats and both in regular contact with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. A natural partnership between two like-minded political giants, you might think - or is it?

John Heilemann is the co-author of the bestseller "Game Change," perhaps the defining account of the 2008 election campaign. He's already working on a follow-up on the players involved in this year's race. And he also finds time for a day job as political editor at New York magazine. John Heilemann joins me in the studio.

John, thanks for being with us.

JOHN HEILEMANN: I am so happy to be here, you can't imagine.


MARTIN: OK, so take us back. Remind us about the dynamic between Barack Obama and Bill Clinton; how it unfolded, 2007-2008 when Hillary Clinton was running for the Democrat nomination.

HEILEMANN: Well, let's start with the fact that President Clinton recognized much earlier than almost anybody around his wife's campaign that Barack Obama could be a problem for her. And when that eventuality occurred, when he won the Iowa caucuses, it was all bitter and nasty and mean. And then eventually peace came.


HEILEMANN: And, you know, there was detente in...

MARTIN: Well, let's talk about that. Hillary Clinton drops out, Barack Obama becomes president obviously, Hillary Clinton becomes his loyal secretary of state. I mean, what has transpired in the wake of all that? All the bad blood from the campaign is just washed away and they make nice now? This is all just politics?

HEILEMANN: Well, let's remember that - and we report about this in "Game Change" - when President Obama begged Hillary Clinton - Senator Clinton then - to be his secretary of state. One of the things she said was, as she was resisting the job offer, she said, you know, you've seen what my husband can do. You know, he can be a problem. He's a walking headline machine and we're going to have to deal with that if I take this job.

And one of the things President-elect Obama at the time said was, you're worth it. You know, we'll deal with the problems that arise with your husband as they arise. And the truth is that over the course of the first three and a half years of the Obama administration, President Clinton has proven to be remarkably unproblematic.

Underneath that, there is this kind of tension around whether from Bill Clinton's point of view, why isn't Barack Obama talking to me more? Why is he not consulting me more for political advice?

MARTIN: Calling him up on the phone, saying, well, what would you do in X, Y, Z situation?

HEILEMANN: Yes. Yes. Yes. And, you know, there still is on the part of a lot the Obama people who really all have thought Hillary Clinton has been a great secretary of state - there's no tension in that relationship. They still are little bit wary about President Clinton and they're still always a little bit worried that maybe he has some other agenda, and maybe it's on behalf of his wife for 2016, that he might not be fully a team player.

And so, they do keep him at arm's length a little bit. And then, every once in a while on some small thing, he'll inject himself in a way that reminds the Obama people he kind of can be a live grenade. And that happen again just last week when he went on the Piers Morgan show and defended Mitt Romney's tenure at Bain Capital.

MARTIN: Well, let's talk about that. He, as you said, came out publicly defended Mitt Romney's - the chapter of his life in the private sector. This is been a primary line of attack on their part of the Obama administration to attack Romney on this. Was it a slip of the tongue? Was this calculated?

HEILEMANN: President Clinton's tongue rarely slips in anyway that's not intentional. You know, I think you've seen with the attack on Bain that there a lot of pro-business establishment Democrats in politics on Wall Street, other places that are little uncomfortable with this attack.

President Clinton, when he was president of the United States, understood in a way that governors only do - Democratic governors in particular - how important it is to have the business community on your side; that it's hard for a Democrat to win re-election is business feels as though you're hostile.

MARTIN: So he's not afraid to go out and use the media as a way to get his message through to the president, about what he thinks he should be doing; how he should be posturing himself in this campaign. At the same time, the two are going to appear together on Monday.

HEILEMANN: Well, look. There's no question he wants is the president Obama re-elected and for a lot of reasons. Because he agrees with him, because if you were being totally Machiavellian, it's President Obama getting re-elected is a better run essentially for Hillary Clinton in 2016. And, again, if you think that part of the psychology here is, you know, he loves being asked to do things. And so, when they say to him, hey, we need you to help raise money, we're in trouble.

So, I think he looks at the way in which President Obama has let himself get in a situation where he might very well is likely to be outspent. And now, he's being asked to help. You know, President Clinton likes to help and he likes to feel needed. And if President Obama is wise or some combination of wise and sufficiently desperate, he'll be using Bill Clinton a lot this fall to try to move some of those really important votes in a lot of states that are going to be very, very close.

MARTIN: John Heilemann is the coauthor of "Game Change." He's also political editor at New York magazine. John, thanks so much for stopping by.

HEILEMANN: Thanks for having me.


MARTIN: You're listening to NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.