The Uncampaign

Barack Obama wants you to forget he was ever a candidate.

Barack Obama's press conference. Click image to expand.
Barack Obama’s press conference

Barack Obama’s first job as president-elect: to make people forget the campaign. More specifically, to make people forget all the mean things he said about his soon-to-be colleagues. More specifically still, to make people forget some, but not all, of the things he said. And to make sure people understand the context of the things they do remember.

No one said governing would be easy.

After Obama unveiled his national-security team today, a reporter asked how he could pick Hillary Clinton for secretary of state after everything he said about her during the Democratic primary. After all, it feels like just yesterday that he reduced her foreign-policy experience to sipping tea in ambassadors’ mansions. Now she is suddenly qualified to be the country’s top diplomat?

Obama swatted the question away. “I know this is fun for the press to stir up whatever quotes were generated during the course of the campaign,” he said, as if the quotes themselves emanated from a mysterious but powerful quote generator whose workings are unrelated to anything he actually said. Obama went on to say reporters should look at statements made “outside of the heat of a campaign,” that he and Hillary share a worldview, and that she’ll make an “outstanding” secretary of state.

It’s clear that Obama thinks Clinton is qualified—her appointment says as much. Obama even said so during the campaign, albeit jokingly: Responding to a debate question about all the former Clinton advisers on his campaign, Obama quipped, “Hillary, I’m looking forward to you advising me as well.” But then how do we know whether a statement was sincere or whether it was just something said in flagrante campaigno?

It’s hard to say. But this we do know: If both attacker and attacked agree that they’re over it, then it’s hard for the rest of us to care. Just as the politics of a campaign encourage discord, the politics of governing—at least initially—encourage harmony.

All former presidential candidates have a slew of statements they’d rather forget. Joe Biden probably wishes he hadn’t described Obama as unready to lead the country. Hillary no doubt wishes she hadn’t suggested that Obama hadn’t crossed “the commander in chief threshold.” (She later backtracked and said that although he hadn’t crossed it yet, he somehow would by Election Day.) And Obama may regret slamming Hillary for her vote to designate Iran’s Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization, now that she may one day represent him in talks with Iran.

Inconvenient quotes aren’t just about people—they’re about policy, too. In a June interview with Fortune, Obama acknowledged that previous characterizations of NAFTA as “devastating” and “a big mistake” may have been “overheated and amplified.” Now, in the midst of recession, the political cost of adjusting NAFTA at all looks rather high. Obama also pledged to repeal the Bush tax cuts before they expired in 2011. But advisers have recently signaled that he may let them expire on schedule, since raising taxes (or rescinding tax cuts, if you prefer) risks damaging an already ailing economy.

But then there are some statements the candidates want you to remember. In the last few primary debates, Obama went out of his way to praise Clinton. He then lauded her in his June 4 victory speech, even before she had conceded: “She’s a leader who inspires millions of Americans with her strength, her courage, and her commitment to the causes that brought us here tonight.” When criticizing McCain, he always made sure to praise his military service. (Sometimes he did so a little too pointedly.) At the same time, when criticizing Bush’s Iraq policy, Obama was careful not to blame the military itself. He reserved animus for Rumsfeld and left Gates alone.

It’s easy to see Obama’s rhetorical shifts—and those of his colleagues—as typical weathervane politicking. Of course Obama is going to embrace Hillary Clinton now that he needs her, and vice versa. And it’s tempting to say that candidates want the public to discount anything negative they said and believe all the positive stuff.

But the contradictions say less about a shift in Obama’s thinking than about the artificial distinctions made during a presidential campaign. In the primary, Obama and Clinton struggled to exaggerate their differences. Obama’s desire to sit down with unfriendly foreign leaders wasn’t just inadvisable, it was “irresponsible” and “naive,” according to Clinton. Clinton’s vote for the Iraq war wasn’t an understandable mistake made by 77 percent of senators but a cardinal sin, according to Obama. These fulminations clouded the fact that on most issues, Clinton and Obama’s stances were near-identical, give or take a health care mandate. In the general election, too, Obama and McCain painted each other as polar opposites on withdrawal from Iraq, when in fact their stances weren’t all that different.

Plus, papering over past statements is in everyone’s best interest. (Well, not everyone’s.) No one wants you to forget the nasty things Obama said about Hillary more than Hillary herself. And just as Obama was careful not to construe attacks on Bush’s Iraq policy as attacks on Gates, Gates is undoubtedly happy not to take Obama’s criticisms personally. The attacks may have been personal, but reconciliation is a group effort.

No doubt other past statements will emerge in the coming months. (The RNC is already on the case.) But with reconciliation in the interest of all Democrats, as well as a few Republicans, they shouldn’t be hard to explain away. Especially if they were made in the heat of a campaign.