Forget an awkward beer summit, Obama honors Clinton with Freedom medal

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But would they drink beer together?

President Obama will award former President Bill Clinton the Medal of Freedom on Wednesday at the White House, a public display of admiration belied by the enduring tensions between the two men.


PHOTOS: Best Frenemies: Bill Clinton and President Obama


Mr. Obama will bestow the nation’s highest civilian honor on Mr. Clinton for the work during his presidency and, more recently, as head of the Clinton Global Initiative. Fifteen other honorees will attend the ceremony in the East Room, but all eyes will be on the president and his sometime nemesis, the former president.

It will be their first face-to-face encounter since Mr. Clinton publicly encouraged a Democratic rebellion last week against a portion of Obamacare and urged Mr. Obama to make good on his promise that Americans could keep their health insurance plans. The comeuppance fueled speculation that the Clintons are starting to distance themselves from the increasingly unpopular Mr. Obama in preparation for a presidential bid by Hillary Rodham Clinton in 2016.

“The White House told me they don’t have any problem with what [Mr. Clinton] said; I also don’t believe them,” said a Democrat with ties to the West Wing. “There will always be a suspicion among Democrats that [the Clintons] are only in it for themselves.”

But an adviser in the Clinton White House, Lanny Davis, predicted that the episode last week will not mar Wednesday’s ceremony.

“Not only is it not going to lead to tension, I think President Obama welcomed it,” Mr. Davis said of Mr. Clinton’s remarks on Obamacare. He said the president eventually took Mr. Clinton’s advice by allowing some insurers to continue offering, for one year, health care plans that don’t meet standards under the Affordable Care Act.

Mr. Clinton left office in 2001, but his shadow looms large over Mr. Obama’s presidency. The former president is more popular than Mr. Obama, whose job approval rating is plummeting in his second term.

The friction between the president and Mr. Clinton goes back to at least 2007, when Mr. Obama was running against Mrs. Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination. Mr. Clinton accused Mr. Obama of embellishing his opposition to the Iraq War, calling it “the biggest fairy tale I’ve ever seen.”

That was the same primary in which Mr. Obama coolly described Mrs. Clinton during a debate as “likable enough.”

Mrs. Clinton served as secretary of state in Mr. Obama’s first term and, by most accounts, the two worked well together. But the relationship between Mr. Obama and her husband has remained prickly at times.

When the two men got together for a round of golf at Andrews Air Force Base in September 2011, they didn’t finish the 18 holes, according to an account in the book “Double Down: Game Change 2012,” by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann. Mr. Obama reportedly grew annoyed that Mr. Clinton talked too much and didn’t take the game seriously, taking numerous “mulligans,” or second shots without a penalty.

“I like him in doses,” Mr. Obama told an aide after walking off the course.

The president is said to seek companions for visits with Mr. Clinton, rather than spend time alone with him.

But Mr. Obama recognized that he needed Mr. Clinton for his re-election campaign last year because the former president excels at explaining complicated subjects, such as the economy and health care, to large audiences.

Thus he called on his “secretary of explaining stuff” several times at campaign rallies and fundraisers, a role Mr. Clinton clearly enjoyed. Mr. Clinton gave a rousing speech at the Democratic National Convention that many considered better than Mr. Obama’s acceptance speech.

The president couldn’t always count on Mr. Clinton to stay on script during the campaign.

In May 2012, Mr. Clinton said in an interview that Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney had a “sterling” business record, just as the Obama campaign was unleashing its crucial strategy of defining Mr. Romney as a heartless corporate raider.

In June 2011, Mr. Clinton angered the White House by penning a cover story in Newsweek magazine that offered his prescriptions for fixing the ailing economy, providing a reminder that 14 million Americans were out of work.

This June, while Mr. Obama was grappling with the question of whether to attack Syria, Mr. Clinton told a private gathering that it would be unwise for the president to decide against military action simply because the public was opposed.

“You’d look like a total wuss,” Mr. Clinton said, “and you would be.” His comments leaked quickly.

Mr. Obama ultimately decided against military action and in favor of a deal brokered by Russia to confiscate Syria’s chemical weapons.

Mr. Clinton also downplayed Mr. Obama’s early victory in the South Carolina primary, saying Jesse Jackson had won the state twice but ultimately lost the Democratic presidential nomination. Some Obama supporters, many of whom once praised Mr. Clinton as the “first black president,” accused him of racism.

The Democratic operative said many in his party find it hard to believe the occasional problems that Mr. Clinton creates for Mr. Obama are accidental.

“If you accept the premise that [Mr. Clinton is] the smartest politician around, that he sees moves on the chess board that no one else can see, the question is, does he do it on purpose?” the Democrat said.

Although Mr. Clinton is one of only two presidents in history to be impeached (for perjury and obstruction of justice related to Paula Jones’ sexual harassment lawsuit), he is more popular in polls than Mr. Obama.

A Gallup poll this month had 55 percent of Americans retrospectively giving Mr. Clinton an “outstanding” or “above average” job approval rating, third among modern presidents behind John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. The same survey had Mr. Obama getting such ratings from 28 percent of respondents; several other polls show that Mr. Obama’s job approval score this month has fallen to around 40 percent.

While the public’s opinion of a president often improves after he leaves office, only 15 percent of Americans have a “poor” opinion of Mr. Clinton, Gallup said. Forty percent have a poor opinion of Mr. Obama.

Mr. Davis said Mr. Clinton “has become a transcendent global leader in a way that no other former president has ever approached.”

“The Medal of Freedom, in a way, understates the impact that he and his foundation have had around the globe, and it’s much deserved,” he said.

Among the other Medal of Freedom recipients will be media mogul Oprah Winfrey, country music legend Loretta Lynn, former Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, former Chicago Cubs baseball player Ernie Banks, retired Sen. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, feminist Gloria Steinem, former University of North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith, and a posthumous award to astronaut Sally Ride.

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