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For Obama and Clinton, the hatchet's buried — if not forgotten

Political stakes are too high and the former president's campaign help is too valuable to let bitterness from the 2008 primary get in the way.

June 04, 2012|By Michael A. Memoli and Kathleen Hennessey, Los Angeles Times
  • President Obama and former President Clinton have largely put aside bitterness from the 2008 Democratic primary, when Obama defeated former First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton for the nomination. Clinton is now campaigning for Obama.
President Obama and former President Clinton have largely put aside bitterness… (Carolyn Kaster, Associated…)

NEW YORK — There were charges of racism, sexism and disrespect. There were hurt feelings and outbursts of red-faced anger. Friendships were frayed and tens of millions of dollars spent.

But the shrapnel of the great Obama-Clinton war of 2008 appeared to be little more than a distant memory Monday when President Obama and former President Clinton took the stage to raise big money for Obama's reelection.

It's a Washington ritual — burying the hatchet. And it has rarely been practiced as publicly. Four years after the primary that divided the Democratic Party, Hillary Rodham Clinton is the face of Obama's foreign policy and Bill Clinton has become a frequent and reliable political ally.

For the most part. Behind the smiles, backslaps and golf, the hatchet is not forgotten. Things remain, as they say, complicated.

Just last week, Bill Clinton undermined a key Obama campaign theme when he said presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney had a "sterling" business career. The Obama campaign is blasting Romney as a job-killing tycoon.

The next day, the men landed on opposite sides of a Democratic primary race for Congress in New Jersey.

Yet, Obama and Clinton have had moments of surprising comity. In 2010, Clinton showed up at the White House to help sell a tax deal reviled by many congressional Democrats. Obama let him take over the briefing room.

More recently, Clinton praised Obama's foreign policy chops in a campaign video.

The appearances Monday represented the second of their three planned fundraising outings for Obama's reelection — and the first before television cameras.

Speaking at the Upper East Side home of a hedge fund executive, Clinton said a Romney presidency would be "calamitous for our country and the world," and Obama had the "right economic policy and the right political approach."

Mixing Obama campaign talking points with some of his own, Clinton branded Romney as the nominee of the "Republican Congress" and said he was proposing "Europe's economic policies."

"Their economic policy is austerity and unemployment now, and then a long-term budget that would explode the debt when the economy recovers so the interest rates would be so high, nobody would be able to do anything," Clinton said.

"[Obama] has good politics. … He deserves to be reelected," Clinton said, adding that he "has a pretty good secretary of State too."

With Hillary Clinton now barred from political activity, her husband is repaying her political debts. Just last Friday, Bill Clinton was in Paterson, N.J., to campaign for Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr., who endorsed Hillary Clinton four years ago and is locked in a tight battle with fellow Democrat Steven R. Rothman after redistricting cost the state a congressional seat.

Rothman endorsed Obama four years ago, and the president repaid him with a recent invitation to the White House. A local newspaper said the primary battle looked "more like a duel" between Clinton and Obama than between the two longtime officeholders.

Skirmishes aside, associates of both men insist their feud has long since subsided. Clinton has been an occasional sounding board for Obama and has helped raise money for international disasters like the Haiti earthquake.

But Clinton's eagerness to offer advice isn't always well received. In 2011, he wrote a book making the case for Democrats' economic policies but annoyed Obama allies by criticizing the White House for not insisting on a deal to raise the debt ceiling in the 2010 tax compromise.

Clinton later found a way to walk that back.

"I'm trying to force myself to say once a day, 'I don't know' or 'I was wrong,' " the former president told his daughter, Chelsea, in an onstage interview about the book. His former national economic advisor, Gene Sperling, who was then Obama's economic advisor, had emailed him that Democrats had tried for such a deal. "So I was wrong about that."

Clinton said last week that his Romney comments had been "twisted around."

"I said, you know, Gov. Romney had a good career in business and he was a governor, so he crosses the qualification threshold for him being president. But he shouldn't be elected, because he is wrong on the economy and all these other issues," he said.

Clinton is too valuable a political asset to be set aside. Last fall, Obama campaign advisors made a pilgrimage to Clinton's Harlem office to request his support, according to sources familiar with the meeting. The first major need: fundraising, one of Clinton's talents.

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