When Obama’s top lieutenants met in the Cabinet Room of the West Wing of the White House on September 10, 2009, they came armed with concerns about the president’s health care push. Tea Party Summer was in full bloom. Across the country, lawmakers had been under assault at town hall meetings during their August recess, and the rest of the agenda was getting subsumed into the maelstrom. Was it worth all that sacrifice? Not for much of the cabinet. As they settled into nameplated leather chairs around the oval mahogany conference table donated by Richard Nixon, one secretary after another complained that his or her priorities were getting crowded out by a health care debate that was also taking its toll onthe Democratic Party’s standing.
Hillary watched with concern from her seat directly to the president’s right. She had lost her own battle to reform the country’s health insurance system in 1994. As secretary of state, she had stayed away from weighing in on the president’s domestic agenda with anyone other than Obama and a handful of his closest aides. Even many White House health care staffers weren’t aware that she was giving back-channel advice to chief of staff Rahm Emanuel and deputy chief of staff Jim Messina, particularly on how to deal with members of Congress. She knew them, and the political complexities of their districts and states, as well as anyone in the West Wing.
“A member or two may have stopped and asked me what I thought,” Hillary said. “And I thought, ‘You need to work with the president and try to get this done.’ ”
In small-group meetings, and sometimes in her weekly one-on-one sessions with Obama, Hillary played cheerleader. “I’m with you. I’m behind you,” she told the president. But she generally was reticent. Any public whiff of engagement on her part could hurt the cause and throw into question whether she was crossing a traditional boundary that kept secretaries of state out of domestic politics. It was Bill Clinton who weighed in publicly on domestic policies. “The president’s doing the right thing,” he had said in an Esquire magazine interview that week. “It is both morally and politically right.”
Now, at a critical juncture for Obama, with opposition to his plan playing out on national news broadcasts every night and some Democrats concerned that the issue would doom his presidency, the last thing he needed was petty infighting from his cabinet. Hillary knew this drill: it wasn’t just Republicans who had killed her proposal—fellow Democrats had also left their fingerprints at the scene of the crime. With her party in control of the White House, the Senate, and the House for the first time since her health care push, she knew just how much was at stake in keeping Democrats, including the president’s cabinet, focused on the task. “She used an anecdote or some sort of flashback to when she was first lady” to set up the thrust of her message, said one Obama aide who was present.
Then taking command of the room, she told her colleagues, as her husband had told Esquire, that it was the right thing to do. “This is the time to do it,” she said. “We’re all in it. Everyone in the room knows how important this is.” The bitching and moaning ceased. It was a pivotal, if underappreciated, moment in the health care reform effort.
At the end of the meeting, Obama spoke briefly to reporters. “The time is right, and we are going to move aggressively to get this done,” he said. “And every member of this cabinet is invested.” That hadn’t been true at the start of the meeting, but Hillary’s sales job had been just what Obama needed to assuage the doubters.
“I thought, Look, the president had more support in Congress than my husband did back in ’93, ’94, so he could put together a majority,” Hillary said. “If the Republicans stonewalled, which they were beginning to show they would, despite his best efforts, he could still put a package on the floor and get it passed in both houses, which doesn’t come along every first term of a president.”
“I believed strongly,” she said, “that the president needed to forge ahead.”
Her private efforts on behalf of the health care law—working with Emanuel and Messina behind the scenes, encouraging Obama and advising him on strategy, and now speaking up on his behalf at a key cabinet meeting—helped strengthen her bond with Obama. For all of his aides’ suspicions, she was proving to be a loyal ally during the tumultuous first year of the Obama administration.
Reprinted from HRC by Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes. Copyright © 2014. Published by Crown, a division of Random House LLC