CHICAGO – When Sen. Hillary Clinton joins President-elect Barack Obama in Chicago today for the rollout of his foreign policy team, with her as secretary of State, it will mark the latest evolution in a fast-changing relationship that began just four years ago, when she was the junior senator from New York and former first lady and he was an Illinois state senator on his way up.
Obama has since moved past her and to the top. But those who have observed the pair over the years aren't surprised that the two Ivy-league educated lawyers are taking their relationship to the next political level.
“I think that the people around each disliked the other candidate more than they ever disliked each other,” a Democrat who has closely observed their relationship over the years wrote in an email Sunday. “If you look at the reporting around the VP process, Obama often asked his team, 'should we take another look at Hillary?'
"The answer he got was no, but he kept coming back to it. I think he had more of an open mind to her than people realized.”
Clinton, who will appear at a 10:40 a.m. Eastern time news conference with her new boss when he announces his war cabinet, was among the many observers who came away impressed by Obama’s 2004 Democratic National Convention keynote address.
After he won election to the U.S. Senate, Obama praised her and said that he would turn to her on how to balance political celebrity with the job of a senator. He later met with Clinton, and his staff reached out to her staff for advice.
“One of the things that people often make a mistake in doing is assuming that there’s some sort of personal animosity there, when in fact they were engaged in a very intense competition for the nomination,” said Phil Singer, who was a spokesman for Clinton’s campaign. “They both have a very healthy level of respect for one another.”
Clinton and Obama’s cordial relationship in the Senate grew terse in 2006 as Obama began making preparations for a run at the party's nomination. Clinton was widely seen as the favored candidate, and viewed Obama as an upstart who hadn’t put in his time.
Their battle over the nomination stretched out to be one of the longest and most contentious in American history.
She attacked his inexperience and called him naïve on foreign policy for saying he would meet with foreign leaders without preconditions.
He attacked her as Old Washington and defined his early candidacy in opposition to her vote to authorize the war in Iraq, which he framed as “the single most important foreign policy decision since the end of the Cold War.”
As the race grew more heated, there was much to-do about The Snub on the floor of the Senate after the 2008 State of the Union address. Some observers said Clinton put her hand out and Obama appeared to ignore it and walk off.
“I waved at her as we were coming into the Senate chamber before we walked over,” Obama later explained to reporters.
As the primary dragged on, the campaigns shot accusations of sexism and racism across each others' bows.
Then there was the time he interrupted her gracious response to a debate question about his personal appeal to crack, "you're likable enough, Hillary."
Meanwhile Bill Clinton speaking in the south compared Obama's candidacy to Jesse Jackson's 1984 and 1988 presidential runs, which was widely understood as an attempt to reduce Obama from a mainstream to a fringe, black candidate.
Even after Obama took a clear lead in the delegate count and Clinton was left with no apparent path to the nomination, she stayed in the race, continuing to attack her Democratic foe even as he shifted focus to Arizona Sen. John McCain, who had long since wrapped up his party's nomination.
Even when Clinton dropped out of the race in early June and endorsed Obama, she doing stressed her own 18-million supporters, nearly as many as had backed her rival. Her speech at their first joint rally in Unity, N.H. less than three weeks after she ended her campaign, there were some awkward moments, like when she praised him for a “spirited dialogue” during the primary, then said, “That was the nicest way I could think of phrasing it.”
Bill Clinton conspicuously avoided meeting with the Obama for weeks after his wife exited the primary, and he stayed clear of the campaign trial until toward the end of the general election race.
While Obama had received the praise for rhetoric up until then, it was Clinton who gave a widely lauded speech at the Democratic National Convention—and one that began to heal the wounds of the primary.
“After the dust settled from the primaries, she threw her support behind him fully,” Mo Elleithee, a former spokeswoman for Clinton’s campaign, wrote in an email, adding that Obama “clearly recognizes that she is a powerful voice on the international stage, and she clearly shares his commitment to a new foreign policy that restores America’s positive influence abroad.”
Bill Clinton also seems to have come around. He campaigned hard for Obama in the homestretch of the campaign. And last week he agreed as a precondition of his wife serving in the administration to disclose the names of contributors to his foundation and vet his private business with State department ethics officials.
Obama seemed to begin to trust her more the more she campaigned for him, particularly among women and in pivotal states like Florida and Pennsylvania. Bringing her into the fold as part of his Cabinet could prove to be the ultimate test of their relationship.
“[O]nly a few people are in their league,” said the Democrat who has closely observed their relationship, “and at the end of the day, you're drawn to them.”