Obama and the Gratitude System

John Kerry and Hillary Clinton both wanted – and probably still want – to be president, a reality they joked about when their paths crossed on Tuesday.

As Jason Horowitz noted, Clinton, Barack Obama’s soon-to-be confirmed secretary of state, accidentally addressed Kerry, the new chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, as "Mr. President" during her confirmation hearing. After Clinton called it a Freudian slip, Kerry replied that "We are both subject to those" – to which Clinton responded, "On this subject especially."

Really, though, the joke is on Kerry – and, for that matter, on many of the other high-profile Democrats who went out on a limb for Obama’s presidential campaign – because if there’s been one notable trend as Obama as assembled his administration, it’s that early loyalty in the campaign hasn’t been rewarded, even as open hostility has been.

There’s no better example of this than the two principal players at Tuesday’s confirmation hearing.

Almost exactly one year ago, long before it was clear – or even highly likely – that Obama would secure the Democratic nomination, Kerry stepped forward to endorse him. Endorsements are almost always overvalued by the press, and Kerry’s was probably no exception (even when he was the party’s 2004 nominee, Kerry’s personal popularity among Democrats was questionable), but the media stir that his decision provoked couldn’t have come at a better time for Obama.

After winning the Iowa caucuses on January 3 and being prematurely handed the nomination by virtually every opinion-shaper in America, Obama had suffered a stunning loss to Clinton in New Hampshire on January 8. Order, and Clinton’s inevitability, had seemingly been restored on the Democratic side, and once again the nomination seemed hers to lose. Against that backdrop, the decision of the previous Democratic presidential nominee to back Obama offered a badly needed jolt of credibility to the Illinoisan’s campaign – living, breathing proof that, despite Clinton’s success in New Hampshire, there were plenty of high-ranking Democrats who still believed Obama could win.

Of course, there had to be an element of calculation to Kerry’s move. With so much of the party establishment already lined up behind Clinton, simply adding his name to that long list of backers would, Kerry understood, have had little impact – both with the press and with the Clintons, who had always expected him to do so (and, if anything, we miffed that he’d been holding out). Where was the upside in that? Obama, on the other hand, offered the chance of a pay-off, an endorsement that would be appreciated and remembered by the candidate – and also, if the candidate went on to win the election, rewarded.

Of course, Kerry surely had plenty of "pure" motives for choosing Obama over Clinton, but he could have done that at any point. The timing of his move strongly suggested that his own political motives were entwined in his thinking. (Not that this makes him different from any other politician.)

And it became clear as the year progressed and Obama’s White House prospects brightened, what kind of reward Kerry had in mind: secretary of state. It is absolutely not a coincidence that numerous stories, in the Washington press and back home in Massachusetts, both immediately before and immediately after the November election linked Kerry to the job.

You can imagine his disappointment, then, as November progressed and it became clear that he would be passed over. He’d followed the old playbook – get in early with the winning candidate, and do so in a big way – and he had been rejected. Worse, it quickly became obvious that Obama’s secretary of state choice would actually be Clinton, the same woman whose ire Kerry had risked to endorse Obama in the first place.

And Kerry’s not the only Democrat who played by the political rules only to lose out to someone who defied them.

Bill Richardson, who ran a forgettable presidential race last year, willingly destroyed his own longstanding relationship with the Clinton family for the opportunity to deliver what was (at least according to the press) a pivotal endorsement of Obama. He, too, hoped to run the State Department – or even to fill out Obama’s ticket as the V.P. – and he too was passed over, snubbed for the vice presidency (in favor of Joe Biden, who had refrained from endorsing Obama after dropping his own presidential bid last year) and for State, and instead offered a Commerce Department gig that no one thought he’d take and from which he was forced to withdraw last week because of a scandal back home.

Then there’s Howard Dean, the Democratic Party chairman whose 50-state vision, mercilessly derided and mocked by the party’s D.C. establishment, ended up playing a role in Obama’s surprise fall incursions into longstanding Republican territory. And Dean’s willingness to go to war with Democrats in Florida and Michigan over the dates of their primaries may well have saved Obama in his race against Clinton. Had Dean given in, Clinton likely would have picked up a marquee victory in Florida last January, just three days after Obama’s stunning South Carolina landslide.

Dean hoped to serve as Obama’s Secretary of Health and Human Services. But he got nothing – and was even humiliatingly snubbed last week when Obama appeared with Tim Kaine, his choice to succeed Dean at the DNC, Tim Kaine. Dean wasn’t even invited – a decision that undoubtedly had much to do with the identity of Obama’s new chief of staff: Rahm Emanuel.

That would be the same Emanuel who waged open warfare with Dean a few years ago, when Emanuel was running the House Democrats’ campaign committee and Dean was insisting on his now-vindicated 50-state strategy. It’s also the same Emanuel who served as a top aide to Bill Clinton and, despite sharing a hometown with Obama, stayed neutral

in last year’s primaries.

In their at-times entertaining 76-page complaint against Rod Blagojevich, the feds allege that the Illinois governor was particularly miffed to learn that, in exchange for appointing Obama’s preferred candidate to the U.S. Senate, he would be given nothing but "gratitude."

The same, it seems, goes for some of Obama’s top campaign supporters.