By Justin Sink - 02/03/14 06:00 AM EST
It’s been a long and winding road, but President Obama and the Clintons have learned to love one another — politically-speaking, at least.
For Obama, the newfound respect for his most recent Democratic predecessor has come as he has learned, much to his frustration, the limits of his own power.
There was a time when Obama jabbed at President Clinton’s record, suggesting the changes the 42nd president had wrought were modest.
During the epic and bitter 2008 Democratic presidential primary, Obama opined that President Reagan did more to “put us on a fundamentally different path” than Clinton had during his White House years.
“I think that Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that, you know, Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not,” he said.
The pattern continued after Obama was elected, while social interactions between the two men were often awkward.
In 2011, they were unable to finish a round of golf together, with Obama later confessing to an aide he only liked Clinton’s exhaustive personal politicking “in doses,” according to Double Down, a book by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann.
Clinton, for his part, famously said on the campaign trail that Obama was “selling the biggest fairy tale I’ve ever seen.” Other remarks from the former president, including one comparison of Obama with Rev. Jesse Jackson, were seen as racially-loaded, a charge that Clinton and his aides furiously denied.
But that is all water under the bridge. The White House tacitly admits that Obama has been unable to transcend Washington’s partisan tensions, and now the president is embracing the style and tactics of the former president.
Democrats say that Obama has come to view himself much as Clinton did — a relay runner, looking to put the next Democratic president in the best possible position through incremental work toward progressive policy goals.
And that next president may very well be former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who is positioned to reap the benefits of Obama’s new leadership style.
Any rebound Obama sees in the polls will only benefit whomever the Democratic nominee is in 2016. The divisions that the 2008 Obama campaign sought to emphasize – between their man as a breath of fresh air and Hillary as politics-as-usual — are also much less pronounced these days.
The supportiveness is running both ways. Hillary Clinton wrote to her former colleague, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), last month backing Obama's stance on Iran.
Meanwhile, recent weeks have seen Obama crisscross the country, touting the modest executive actions he used to deride.
In his State of the Union address, Obama pledged new regulations on existing power plants to combat climate change, a review of federal job training programs, and a new requirement forcing federal contractors to pay above the minimum wage.
In a recent interview with The New Yorker, Obama seemed to acknowledge narrowing ambitions for the office.
“One of the things that I’ve learned to appreciate more as president is you are essentially a relay swimmer in a river full of rapids, and that river is history,” Obama said. “You don’t start with a clean slate, and the things you start may not come to full fruition on your timetable. But you can move things forward.”
Princeton University professor Julian Zelizer called the State of the Union a “full acknowledgment that the way Clinton governed made sense.”
“Obama came to terms with the way partisanship puts handcuffs on the president, polarization, the limits of presidential power,” he said.
A reshuffle of White House staff over winter vacation also saw the return of John Podesta — Clinton’s second-term chief of staff — to the White House.
Gene Sperling, the president’s economic adviser, says he saw some similarities between how a “post-presidency” Clinton and President Obama demonstrate “a very strong use of the phone.”
On Friday, the president announced that the White House had secured pledges from 300 corporations to end hiring discrimination against the long-term unemployed. Earlier this month, the White House presented pledges from universities and nonprofit groups to spend more on helping low-income students attend college.
The extra-governmental efforts mirror some of the charity work coordinated by the Clinton Foundation, which parlays the former president’s stature into charity partnerships.
Democrats also saw strains of Clinton in the tone Obama struck during the State of the Union speech. Although he stressed he would take executive action if Congress failed to act, he also included language praising his Republican opponents.
Strategist Tad Devine said that “elevated tone” was “reminiscent of Clinton” and was likely to lead, as it had for the former president, to an improvement in his approval rating.
The Clintons have learned from Obama, too. In 2008, their campaign was outmaneuvered by the president’s political team, which better understood the mechanics of the primary process and how to fundraise in the digital age.
They replicated that success in the 2012 reelection effort, and the major players in Obama’s campaign team have already lined up behind a potential Clinton bid.
“It’s a symbiotic relationship to be sure, but each has its own DNA,” said former Clinton White House press secretary Mike McCurry.
“The Clinton political operatives of the late 1990s don’t really know as much about the practical applications of new voter-targeting technologies as the Obama folks do, so if Mrs. Clinton is serious, the average age of folks in her universe will have to decline from age 60 to age 30,” he added.
Top Clinton allies have recruited some of the major players from Obama’s campaign staff — including reelection campaign manager Jim Messina, as well as field organizers Jeremy Bird and Mitch Stewart — to political action committees prepping for a possible Clinton run.
“We were very eager to tap into the Obama expertise,” said Paul Begala, a strategist for Priorities USA, the pro-Obama super-PAC that has lined up behind a Clinton bid. “I’ve been doing this a long time and I’ve never seen a better campaign than 2012. The ’08 election was impressive, but nobody since FDR got reelected with unemployment that high.”
Begala said he knew President Clinton now had “great admiration” for Obama and that he believed “a high degree of mutual respect” existed between the leaders.
Democratic strategist Bob Shrum said “it was only natural” that the presidents would learn from one another.
“Do smart people learn from each other? Of course,” Shrum said.
To some extent, the close relationship is born out of necessity — the fates of Bill Clinton’s legacy, Obama’s presidency, and Hillary Clinton’s electoral prospects are inexorably interwoven.
“It’s no longer the Clinton Democrats versus the Obama Democrats. They are one and the same,” Zelizer said.