Presidents Obama And Clinton Not Exactly Old Friends

Melissa Block speaks with Ryan Lizza, Washington correspondent for The New Yorker, about his new piece on the relationship between President Bill Clinton and President Barack Obama.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

On Wednesday night, at the Democratic Convention in prime time, President Obama's name will be formally placed into nomination by his predecessor, Bill Clinton. The invitation for that speech came directly from President Obama himself in a phone call to Clinton - that according to Ryan Lizza of The New Yorker who writes about the fraught relationship between the two presidents in this week's issue. Ryan Lizza joins me from Charlotte. Welcome to the program.

RYAN LIZZA: Hey, thank you, Melissa.

BLOCK: And, Ryan, you cite advisers saying that these two presidents don't really like each other, but they're in the midst of what you call a carefully orchestrated reconciliation, a rapprochement that you say started over nothing other than a game of golf.

LIZZA: It started over golf. One of the Obama's political people called up Clinton's main political guy, a guy named Doug Band, and they wanted him to do some events. And Doug went back to them and said, you know, you don't just call Bill Clinton up and ask him to do X, Y and Z. We need to build a relationship here. And 12 hours later, Bill Clinton got a phone call from the president, asking him to come out for a round of golf.

BLOCK: And the roots of this complicated and difficult relationship go back, of course, to the 2008 presidential race, the long drawn out primary contest between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. And Bill Clinton at the time had a lot to say about his wife's opponent that was not flattering. It was not at all conducive to a future relationship.

LIZZA: It was really, really ugly and a lot of misunderstanding. I mean, I think still to this day, Bill Clinton believes that his words were taken out of context unfairly by the Obama campaign and that the arguments he was trying to make against Obama were well within the bounds of political discourse. And yet by the end of that campaign, he found himself accused, frankly, of injecting race into the campaign. This is Bill Clinton who, you know, his entire life, nobody had ever accused him of that. And it truly wounded him.

BLOCK: Well, it's interesting because Bill Clinton did speak at the 2008 convention. He joked about a primary campaign that generated so much heat. It increased global warming.

(LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: But he did go on to give a very full-throated endorsement of Barack Obama. Let's take a listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED SPEECH)

PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: Everything I learned in my eight years as president and in the work I have done since, in America and across the globe, has convinced me that Barack Obama is the man for this job.

BLOCK: So, Ryan Lizza, that was 2008. What happened since Barack Obama was elected? How much contact has there been between the two presidents? What's the dynamic like?

LIZZA: The picture that you get from a lot of the Clinton folks is of a forlorn former president waiting by the phone and wondering why the new president didn't call him. Now, the Clinton folks will say Bill Clinton didn't believe it was his job to pester or to reach out to the new president partly because he had a similar experience with Jimmy Carter. You know, arguably, Carter and Clinton's relationship was even worse than Obama and Clinton.

BLOCK: There is, though, no shortage of former Clinton administration officials who have top positions in the Obama administration. And, of course, Hillary Clinton is secretary of state.

LIZZA: Well, I think this is what happens as time goes on, in a sense, the Obama presidency turns into a version of the Clinton presidency. And a lot of his political advisers have sort of vacated Washington, moved to Chicago to run the campaign. You know, I say in the piece, it's only a slight exaggeration to say that the Obama people now run the campaign while the Clinton people now run the government.

BLOCK: We have seen Bill Clinton appear in an Obama campaign ad this cycle.

LIZZA: Yeah.

BLOCK: Let's take a listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAMPAIGN AD)

CLINTON: President Obama has a plan to rebuild America from the ground up, investing in innovation, education and job training. It only works if there is a strong middle class. That's what happened when I was president. We need to keep going with his plan.

BLOCK: So he has appeared in that campaign ad this cycle, but he also, when he talks, does manage to muddy the waters, doesn't he? He praised Mitt Romney for his sterling business record. He went against the Obama administration by saying that all the tax cuts that are set to expire should be extended. There's a risk when you get Bill Clinton on your side that he'll go off message.

LIZZA: Yeah. Definitely he's not someone who you can just hand a set of talking points to and, you know, will recite them perfectly every time. I mean, he has his own views. I think he genuinely wants, you know, Obama to be re-elected. I (unintelligible) think he's flattered. I think that Obama has changed his message in recent months. He now sort of setting up this choice between do you want to go back to the Bush years or would you like me to pursue policies that led to all that peace and prosperity in the Clinton years? And I don't think Bill Clinton minds that at all.

BLOCK: Ryan Lizza is Washington correspondent for the New Yorker. His article in this week's issue about Presidents Obama and Clinton is titled "Let's Be Friends." Ryan Lizza, thanks so much.

LIZZA: Hey, thank you, Melissa.

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