By Niall Stanage - 09/25/13 09:50 AM EDT
Former President Clinton and President Obama were welcomed to a “conversation” about ObamaCare on Tuesday by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
The unusual event briefly brought together the last, current and possibly future Democratic presidents. And it highlighted how much a successful implementation of the law would benefit not just Obama but Hillary Clinton, if the 2016 Democratic front-runner chooses to run.
The three never actually shared the same New York stage at the Clinton Global Initiative event.
Clinton noted superficial similarities — the two men are both left-handed and “fanatic sports fans,” she pointed out — before adding to laughter that “they each married far above themselves.”
Hillary Clinton exited before her husband and Obama stepped into the spotlight. But the air of bonhomie only deepened, if anything.
Obama endorsed her message about their respective marriages, while Bill Clinton praised the Affordable Care Act as “a big step forward for America.”
Later, the former president described an explanation by Obama of the link between healthcare and broader economic matters as “about as good an overview as you’re ever going to hear.”
The Clinton Global Initiative is often presented as a bipartisan and somewhat apolitical gathering. But there was little sign of that on Tuesday, as Obama wryly noted: “Let’s face it, it’s been a little political, this whole ObamaCare thing.”
He accused opponents of “trying to scare and discourage people from getting a good deal” and described some TV commercials that have targeted the law as “a little wacky.”
Bill Clinton is already fully signed on to push the law, and often merely encouraged the president to tell people about the benefits of the reform law.
“Tell ’em how this has gotta work,” was one typical instruction.
The ghost of an earlier effort to reform the healthcare system, spearheaded by Hillary Clinton during her husband’s first term, hung over the discussion, however.
Some observers argue that success for ObamaCare could cast HillaryCare, as it was known, in a more benevolent light — less as an ignominious failure and more as a precedent that paved the way for Obama’s expansion of healthcare coverage.
“For Hillary, it’s a way of vindicating her,” said Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida. “It establishes her, in a way, as a path-breaker on the issue. She was the first person to go after it in a major way and, up to that point, people had not really wanted to.”
During Tuesday’s conversation, Clinton, who had appeared tired, perked up noticeably when Obama compared the opposition to the Affordable Care Act to the effort to thwart the then-first lady’s efforts in the 1990s.
“The devil you know is always better than the devil you don’t know, and that’s what Harry and Louise was all about back in the ’90s, right?” Obama said to a smile and nod from Clinton, a reference to an ad campaign against the reform effort in 1994. “It was scaring people about the prospect of change.”
But Democratic strategist Zerlina Maxwell noted that she believed the Clintons’ engagement with the healthcare issue went deeper than politics.
“I think they actually care about the health and sense of security of Americans,” she said. “For sure, it’s about making sure that this time around it is successful and it sticks. But I think it’s deeper than that.”
MacManus put a more directly political gloss on the event, and others like it, which she argued were intended to maximize the political benefits to Democrats.
“The most powerful Democratic leaders are trying to create a sense of cohesiveness on the issue and put Republicans on defense,” she said.