Back in 2008, after a hard-fought primary battle against then-Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., then-Sen. Barack Obama had a choice: he could put her on the ticket as his vice presidential nominee, thereby healing the rift that had torn apart the Democratic Party or he could go another direction. He chose Joe Biden over Clinton -- a move for which comics everywhere will forever thank him -- and relegated Clinton to a figurehead secretary of state.
The question at the time was: Why?
Pundits then settled on two answers. The first was ego: Obama didn't want to be outshone by his second-in-command, especially with regard to national security issues. The second was more nefarious: Obama feared having Hillary Clinton as the second-in-line to the presidency. Conspiracy theorists suggested that the Clintons weren't beyond Shakespearian action to obtain the highest office in the land once again; less kooky commentators theorized that a Clinton vice presidency would motivate her to undercut him in order to get a shot at the big chair.
It all seemed a bit overblown at the time.
This week, a desperate President Obama called on former President Clinton to help him reinvigorate his base. They held a joint fundraiser in New York City that netted the president some $3 million.
It also netted him some good old-fashioned Arkansas ass-whuppin' from the prospective first gentleman. "I care about the long-term debt of the country a lot," Clinton told the crowd. "Remember me, I'm the only guy that gave you four surplus budgets out of the eight I sent." Ouch. The only way the moment could have been more uncomfortable for Obama is if he'd been wearing something low-cut at the time, so Clinton could undress him visually as well as verbally.
Obama should have seen it coming. The week before the event, Clinton completely undercut Obama's central strategy of attacking Mitt Romney's record at Bain Capital, calling that record "sterling." "I think he had a good business career," said Bill. "A man who has been governor and had a sterling business career crosses the qualification threshold."
But Clinton wasn't done. He also declared the American economy in a "recession" and suggested that President Obama re-up President Bush's tax rates.
Bill Clinton may be petty and vindictive, but that doesn't mean he's stupid. Backstabbing President Obama is a concerted strategy, not an emotional revenge tactic.
If Obama loses his re-election bid, Clinton will still be seen as the greatest Democratic president since FDR; no one-term president can challenge that title. If Obama loses, Hillary can also claim that he lost because she was isolated from central administration decisions and prepare to run as a moderate in 2016.
If, however, Obama wins, then Clinton's legacy becomes far less stable. So do Hillary's 2016 chances. Joe Biden has already announced his intent to run in 2016. And there are plenty of younger, fresher faces who are closer to the Obama machine than the Clintons. If Obama wins, he will consolidate control over the Democratic National Committee, marginalizing the Clintons even further.
And so Bill has leapt into action. Driven by pride and opportunism, he's got President Obama right where he wants him. And yet, like a deer transfixed by headlights, Obama has no choice but to stand pat and hope that the Clinton bus doesn't run him down.
Every day, that hope seems less and less realistic.