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Big Dog At The Plate

Bill Clinton played a big hand in Obama’s late surge. Has it set up Hillary for 2016?

Big Dog At The Plate
AFP (From Outlook 19 November 2012)
Big Dog At The Plate

The State Of Secretary

  • At the time of Bill Clinton’s election in 1993, it was said in jest that the wrong Clinton had entered the White House
  • Hillary Clinton lost the Democratic Party nomination to Barack Obama in 2008 but agreed to join his team
  • Bill Clinton and Obama didn’t enjoy the best of ties but the Romney charge saw the ex-President enter the scene
  • The buzz is Bill Clinton forcefully campaigned for Obama’s re-election to pave the way for Hillary in 2016
  • Hillary Clinton might not mind a second term in Obama’s team; she could use it to prime up for a presidential bid


By voting day, Bill Clinton had lost his voice “in the service of my president”. But by then, the former US president had also touched the Barack Obama campaign with his magic wand. Casting a spell on voters always eager to drink him up, he made the case for Obama better than the candidate himself. Persuasive charm personified. It was the master sorcerer unplugged.

When detailed histories are written about how Obama won his second term, the coalitions he built and the strategies he adopted, a chapter might well be on the deployment of Clinton as the ultimate weapon against Mitt Romney’s army. Obama realised the need and Clinton was gracious enough to enlist.

He proved to be gentle but devastating—he called Romney “the chief contortionist for the Cirque du Soleil” for tying himself up in knots over the auto industry bailout. The Republican candidate had flip-flopped over many crucial issues in the campaign, giving Clinton much ammunition and more mirth. He recorded automated phone calls for voters, appeared in political ads, lent his gravitas as the Democratic president who had left behind a budget surplus.

The rest is the stuff of political legend. Clinton gave timely advice to the Obama campaign about connecting to White working class voters—a constituency that eludes the first African American president. But the biggest bang for the buck was the Democratic Party convention in September where Clinton was easily the best speaker of all, Barack and Michelle Obama included. He managed to distil the complicated issues around macro- and micro- economics as they affect the people in language that voters understood, earning the sobriquet of “explainer-in-chief”.

Convention delegates cheered, as Clinton declaimed from the podium holding his yellow notepad full of facts and figures and ideas. He had made Obama’s job easier. Clinton had worked for days reading, consulting experts and talking to ordinary people on the ground. And then made sense of it all to mount the argument that Obama’s policies were better for the middle class and the country as a whole.

Hillary, Bill after her nomination in 2006

‘Big Dog’ Clinton, the man who loves to be needed and needs to be loved, then bravely held up his half of the sky at 37 rallies, appearing sometimes in his bomber jacket and sometimes in a suit. When Obama left the campaign trail to oversee relief work after super storm Sandy, which hit the east coast with all its fury, Clinton filled in again as the star attraction. No complaints, for the man feeds on such rhythms of politics and on the people’s adulation.

Ironically, before the “bromance”, the two men weren’t always the best of friends, especially after a bruising 2007-08 campaign when Hillary Clinton lost the Democratic Party nomination to Obama. But recognising that the Clintons are better on the inside than on the outside, Obama played his masterstroke, persuaded Hillary to be his secretary of state. She accepted and grew in stature as her proud husband watched.

But in politics, nothing is ever as straight, especially in the highly evolved world of American presidential politics. No sooner had Obama delivered his acceptance speech in Chicago—#after thanking Bill Clinton on the phone—talking heads and Democratic bloggers were already moving to 2016 and the chances of Hillary as a possible candidate. It could be another history-making move, giving the Democratic Party another potential badge of honour.

So is there a connection between Bill’s tireless efforts for Obama and a putative Hillary Clinton bid in 2016, given that the former president is a politician’s politician, a strategist par excellence? In most of his speeches about Obama in the battleground states, Bill Clinton managed to slip in a cute reference to Hillary, along the lines of “he’s got a heck of a secretary of state”.

Senator John McCain, the Republican presidential candidate who lost to Obama in 2008, revealed last week “that there are some who think this may have a lot to do with 2016”, adding for good measure that he would never suspect “such a thing but there are some real jerks around who think that might be the case”. So why did McCain give currency to an idea floated by people he thought of as “jerks”? Was he trying to sow discord between the Clintons and Obama or was it just a bid to get his own party jumpstarted for 2016?

Hillary2016, a Twitter hashtag, began trending just as Romney conceded on Tuesday night. Clearly, there were many people thinking along those lines, and most likely it was her many supporters trying to create a buzz. A Google search yields four million entries and a website already selling T-shirts for the future campaign. She will be 69 years old in 2016.

Hillary has already retraced her steps a little from an earlier statement that she did not want to serve another term as America’s chief diplomat should Obama win again. In a recent interview, she said a lot of people had been asking her to stay on. Should she decide to serve another stint as secretary of state, her supporters say she would kill two birds with one stone. She would not only be able to clear her record—muddied by the terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, in which a US ambassador and three others died on September 11—but would also be able to stay larger-than-life in the public eye. It’s a win-win situation.

But Hillary has also said, in an interview to the Wall Street Journal, that “it’s important for me to step off this incredibly high wire I’ve been on to take stock of the rest of my life,” a theme she has repeated elsewhere too. Taking stock can also include regrouping for a presidential campaign and putting all the pieces in place. After all, she has said that politics was in her blood. No surprise that political pundits are busy speculating about the Bill and Hillary show—always interesting and always intriguing.

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