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Why Obama Thanked Hillary

The president's former political rival journeyed a long, hard road to loyalty.

In a remarkable moment Sunday night, President Obama explained to CBS’s Steve Kroft that he had requested a 60 Minutes interview jointly with his outgoing secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton, because "I just wanted to have a chance to publicly say thank-you."

Obama has, in truth, good reason to feel grateful to his former political rival--far more than the public generally knows. In an impressive display of discipline and devotion after one of the fiercest primary fights in American political history, Clinton managed to submerge her political ego almost totally during her four years in office. Yet her journey from dominant Democratic political figure--a presidential candidate seen at one point as an easy winner over the upstart Obama--to loyal messenger and defender of the Obama faith wasn’t easy. And, to Clinton's credit, it happened almost entirely out of the headlines.

For his part, Obama achieved precisely what he may have set out to do beyond gaining what he called, in the 60 Minutes interview, an "extraordinary talent" in his administration. He effectively eliminated any public criticism or second-guessing that might have otherwise come from his chief former rival or her popular and influential husband, former President Clinton, who had harshly criticized Obama during the primaries.

The expectations, at the beginning, were quite otherwise. Shortly after Obama made her his surprise selection as secretary of State in the fall of 2008, Washington crackled with speculation about all the internal bickering that the arrival of Hillary would cause in the new administration. As George Stephanopoulos of ABC News, a former Clintonite himself, put it in his blog at the time: "Which meme will win out: 'Team of Rivals' or 'Too Much Clinton'?"

As the president acknowledged Sunday night, he had asked her to be his secretary of State in part because in 2008 he knew he would have his hands full with a collapsing economy, and he needed someone who was "already a world figure" to take care of foreign policy. The implication was that she would be the dominant figure. But that didn’t happen. Instead, Clinton quickly found that foreign policy was being run mostly out of the White House. Or as a senior State Department official put it to me a little over a year into the administration: "If you ask, 'Who is Barack Obama's Henry Kissinger?' the answer, of course, is that it's Barack Obama."  Indeed, for a long time in the early months of the administration Clinton seemed to become almost an unperson as she mastered her brief at State, to the point where friends and admirers who had always known her as a policy dynamo--someone who had always found big issues to “own”--were baffled at her seeming lack of influence.

And by several accounts, the wounds of the primary campaign stayed raw well into the new administration. For much of the first year the mood between the Obama and Clinton camps reflected an uneasy truce. Clinton aides could feel a cold wariness emanating from the Team Obama loyalists at the White House, especially political strategist David Axelrod, then-press secretary Robert Gibbs and Valerie Jarrett, Obama’s closest aide. At the beginning, Clinton “was not in the inner circle. That was clear,” one close associate said in 2010, speaking on condition of anonymity. Clinton in turn “complained about a lack of dissenting voices in the administration,” said another longtime Hillary friend who knew her as first lady. “In the beginning she would say, ‘They want this, they want that,’ meaning the White House. It took a while for her to start saying ‘we.’ "

In addition, her bluntness abroad occasionally caused consternation in the West Wing. In 2009, before the Arab Spring, Clinton hinted that she was developing a policy to turn the Arab dictators into anti-Tehran bloc, and in a speech she boldly called for the Arab regimes to become part of a Cold War-style "defense umbrella” against Iran’s nuclear program. The New York Times soon quoted “a senior White House official” as saying that Clinton was speaking for herself. That was the last anyone heard of the defense umbrella.

In an interview two years ago, Clinton herself acknowledged the beginning  was a bit rough, at least for her and the president's political aides. “I really think there was very little distance between the president and myself. But I think it is fair to say that people who supported both of us may have taken longer to shake off the vestiges of a very hard-fought campaign.Because that’s just the nature of the beast.”

Still, Clinton kept the muttering around her to a minimum and mounted an all-out effort to close any gaps between her and “her president,” and if Obama’s gratitude today is any indication, she largely succeeded. A critical moment, Clinton aides said, came at the global climate talks in Copenhagen in December 2009. She had carried weight before, especially during the Afghanistan policy review, when she aligned with then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates to persuade Obama to add another 30,000 troops in a “surge.” But “Copenhagen was the Aha! moment for both of them,” said a senior Clinton assistant.

The gathering of 133 countries, convened to negotiate a successor to Kyoto, was on the verge of complete breakdown. In a spontaneous decision, Obama and Clinton barged into a meeting that Chinese premier Wen Jiabao was holding with the leaders of Brazil, India, and South Africa to block simple climate controls such as“MRV,” or measurement report and verification of greenhouse-gas emissions. Smiling and shaking hands as if it were just another meet-and-greet, Obama and Clinton worked the room together as they had each done individually on the campaign; then the president sat down andstarted negotiating, with Clinton to his left sliding position papers over to him. When the Chinese finally caved, both Obama and Clinton knew that a critical moment had come two days before when she had flown in by surprise to deliver a major sweetener--what was effectively a global bribe--an offer of $100 billion from the rich countries by 2020 to help the poorer nations cope with climate controls. This had isolated Beijing. In effect, Obama closed the deal Clinton had set up. 

In the final two years of her tenure, though she never really regained the foreign-policy initiative from the White House, Clinton still had considerable influence, especially in pressing the president to intervene in Libya, and in stiffening the administration’s spine occasionally by pressing for a harder line against Beijing and Tehran, particularly over Internet freedom. In the 60 Minutes interview, Obama said: “It has been a great collaboration over the last four years. I'm going to miss her.” There is every reason to think he meant it.