World and Nation

Former rivals Obama & Clinton forge foreign-policy partnership

WASHINGTON — On a snowy Thursday shortly before her weekly meeting with President Barack Obama last month, Hillary Rodham Clinton got a distressing phone call: her husband, Bill Clinton, was in a hospital with chest pains and needed an urgent heart procedure.

Hillary Clinton kept her appointment with Obama in the Oval Office, taking her customary seat on the yellow sofa as the two talked about her coming trip to the Persian Gulf, where she planned to turn up the heat on Iran over its nuclear program.

“No one had any idea” that she might have had a personal worry, said a senior White House official who was present. Afterward, Clinton raced for a shuttle flight to New York to see her husband.

But the fact that she first spent 45 minutes plotting Iran strategy with the man who beat her in a divisive primary campaign shows just how far Obama and Clinton have come since the bitter spring of 2008, when he sniped that her foreign-policy credentials consisted of sipping tea with world leaders, and she scoffed that his consisted of living in Indonesia when he was 10.

Sixteen months after Obama surprised nearly everyone by picking her as secretary of state, the two have again surprised nearly everyone by forging a credible partnership. Clinton has proved to be an eager team player, a tireless defender of the administration, ever deferential to Obama and careful to ensure that her husband, the former president, does not upstage her boss.

Obama has been solicitous of Clinton, yielding to her at times in internal debates, even showing signs of adopting some of her more hawkish world views.

They now joke about their “frenemies” status and have made gestures toward each other’s families. When Obama learned that Chelsea Clinton had become engaged, he turned to Clinton and asked, “Does she want a White House wedding?” a senior official recalled. (Clinton declined, saying the offer was “sweet” but would be “inappropriate.”) And when Clinton traveled to Honolulu in January, she paid tribute to Obama’s mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, in a speech she gave while looking over a garden dedicated to Dunham.

Still, there is none of the deep familiarity or the tight bonds — the round-the-clock, back-channel access — of their predecessors, Condoleezza Rice and George W. Bush, or going further back, James A. Baker and the first President Bush or Henry A. Kissinger and Richard M. Nixon.

“Hillary Clinton is the secretary of state,” said David Rothkopf, a former Clinton administration official who has written about the shaping of foreign policy. “The question now is whether she becomes a real adviser, and whether he trusts her.”

Obama has jealously guarded his prerogatives as the architect of U.S. foreign policy, concentrating decision-making on crucial issues like Iran, Iraq and the Middle East in the White House. And Clinton has yet to stake a claim to a core foreign-policy issue, the kind of signature role that would allow her nascent partnership with Obama to be truly historic.