Three’s a crowd

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President Obama is now sharing center stage with the Clintons.

Five years after beating Hillary Clinton to the Democratic presidential nomination, there are arguably three presidents in town: Obama, Bill Clinton and perhaps the first female commander-in-chief.

As the rollout of ObamaCare’s health exchanges declined into an embarrassing fiasco, Bill Clinton rubbed salt into White House wounds by suggesting that Obama should “honor the commitment” he made to let people keep health plans they liked.

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The intervention was the latest sign, if any were needed, that the Clintons have their own agenda and it is not identical to Obama’s.

They cannot alienate Obama backers, whose votes Hillary will likely be seeking in 2016, but they have their own political profiles, which they want to be able to promote unsullied, inevitably by distancing themselves from Obama’s missteps.

The close working relationship between Hillary Clinton and Obama during her time as his secretary of State helped heal the bruises of their knockdown contest in 2008. But they have faded rather than disappeared entirely, and they could show up livid again as the election clock begins to tick more loudly.

Hillary Clinton is more popular in polls than Obama, but her numbers have recently taken a hit. Her approval rating dropped to 46 percent in a NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released in mid-October, down from 56 percent in January. Obama’s approval rating slipped to 41 percent.

At the same time, although Team Obama appreciates Bill Clinton’s abilities as “explainer-in-chief” they are exasperated by his tendency to storm the stage at inconvenient moments.

“It’s going to be a delicate balancing act for both ... camps, no doubt about it,” said Democratic strategist Jim Manley, former aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). “The former president still has an ability to generate news, for better or worse, whenever he wants.”

Bill Clinton’s comments threw the White House on to the defensive by buttressing the case made by those attacking Obama for breaking his central healthcare promise. More than three dozen House Democrats ignored Obama’s veto threat Friday and defected to vote for a Republican bill that would allow people to keep their insurance policies.

While Clinton mostly praised ObamaCare during his interview, it was his implied criticism that got all the attention.

That is certainly how it will continue to be until Obama leaves the White House in January 2017.

The White House is trying to dampen talk of tension. At a briefing last week, for example, spokesman Jay Carney emphasized the common ground between the past and present presidents, saying, “The goal here is to achieve what President Clinton, and presidents both Democratic and Republican sought to achieve in the past, which is to reform our healthcare system.”

And, trying to drive a wedge between the Clintons and ObamaCare’s congressional opponents, Carney added, “some of the same folks who fought him [Clinton] tooth and nail successfully in the end are still in Congress fighting the Affordable Care Act today. And they didn’t then and they don’t now have an alternative.”

Another show of togetherness will come later this week. On Wednesday, the president and first lady Michelle Obama will be joined by Bill and Hillary Clinton at a wreath-laying ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery to mark the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination.

Although the Clintons helped round up votes for ObamaCare, Hillary Clinton was perceived by some people to be knocking Obama’s management competence last month when she told a gathering of liberal activists, “We are careening from crisis to crisis instead of having a plan, bringing people to that plan, focusing on common-sense solutions and being relentless in driving toward them.”

This may foreshadow how the Clintons will break from Obama as Hillary’s expected presidential campaign unfolds, especially if Obama continues to struggle in the polls.

Democratic strategists say Clintonian criticism could accelerate Obama’s decline into lame-duck status because the party’s next choice of leader seems so apparent.

“This issue is always a dynamic when you have a second-term president in terms of when the baton gets passed,” says Democratic strategist Chris Lehane, a veteran of the Clinton White House.

But he also argued that Washington’s hyper-caffeinated political culture, for which no single person is culpable, would also contribute to that high speed decline.

“In the context of 2016, this process could be accelerated to a degree given several dynamics in play, including the fact that [Hillary Clinton] is such a prohibitive primary favorite, the current political paralysis that already has people looking to 2016 as a moment to break the paralysis, and the reality that we live in a media age where people are already focused on the next game before we are even at half-time of the current game.”

The Clintons will need to be careful not to throw Obama under the bus, as Hillary’s fate as a former member of his administration may be closely tied to his standing come 2016.

Bill Clinton went all-in for Obama during the 2012 election, delivering a speech arguing for the continuity in goals between his administration and Obama’s at the Democratic national convention that year.

“[Clinton] is after all a loyal Democrat who wants to see the president succeed,” Manley said.

Brookings Institute scholar Bill Galston added, “It’s not in the Clintons’ interest either to prevent or retard Obama’s recovery. They’d be undercutting themselves if they did anything that had the effect of slowing or preventing that recovery even if that’s not their intention. They have to be even more careful and continue to be helpful to the administration. Otherwise, they’ll lose.”