The Clintons would appear to give Barack Obama everything he needs in surrogates — experience, a natural constituency, and in Hillary a strong female presence to counteract Sarah Palin.  Thus far, though, the Clintons have remained on the sidelines, with Hillary expressly declining opportunities to attack Palin.  This disconnect comes from unhealed divisions from the primaries, ironically in the same vein as the recent Palin meltdown for Team Obama, and is unlikely to be resolved soon:

With the McCain campaign running tactical circles every day around the Obama outfit—which has failed, somewhat unbelievably, to come up with even a semi-compelling response to the Palin selection—one might think Mrs. Clinton, to say nothing of her sidelined husband, would be a useful surrogate on the counterattack right about now. Apparently, the Obama campaign does not agree.

“My concern is that I see them as totally reactive right now as opposed to getting out there on their own and saying what the hell they are about,” said Leon Panetta, a former chief of staff to Bill Clinton who has advised Mr. Obama. “They seem to be intimidated by the Palin pick. They seem to be intimidated by how the Republicans are coming at them on change. And you cannot win if you are constantly on defense.”

Mr. Panetta added, “As president of the United States you are going to have to learn how to deal with people you may not particularly like, because if you are trying to get things done, you have got to use everything and everybody that you can to get it done. I do think that they absolutely in this race have got to make use of the Clintons in every possible way, because they need them. He has clearly got some problems out there.”

That’s the catch-22 for the Obama campaign.  As much as he’d like to get a rescue from his present catastrophic nosedive, Obama knows that he can’t ask it of Hillary Clinton.  To publicly acknowledge her as his last, desperate hope would be to admit that he shouldn’t have won the primaries in the first place, and that the superdelegates made a huge mistake in selecting him over Hillary.  Also, it would look like the ultimate hypocrisy to demand that Hillary become his attack dog after ignoring her for the position of running mate.

Joe Biden has the job of attack dog, anyway.  That supposedly was one of the reasons Obama picked him — because Biden would fight where Obama wanted to rise above the fray.  So far, Biden’s made an absolute mess of it, insinuating yesterday that Palin didn’t really love her infant son because she didn’t back embryonic stem-cell research, without actually finding out what her position was first.

And why would Hillary feel like lending a hand?  Jason Horowitz sums up the problem succinctly:

Either way, the fact that it has taken so long for this discussion about the Clintons’ role to occur—while polls show a sharp shift in support toward the Republican ticket—is a source of wonderment in Clintonland. The consensus there, based on conversations with present and former Clinton advisers, is that the Obama campaign has isolated itself both as a result of its desire to break with the Clintons and establish itself as the future of the Democratic Party, and out of primary-victory-inspired hubris.

Obama wanted nothing to do with the Clintons.  He fought against them and beat them in the primaries, although only with the Deus ex Machina effect of the superdelegates.  Obama made it clear that they were the past, and he was the party’s future.  In fact, when pushing back against the perception that Democrats were weak on defense in his acceptance speech, Obama pointedly ignored Bill Clinton when listing strong Democratic presidents from the past.  That was less than two weeks ago, and the Clintons remember slights for years.

Now Panetta wants Obama to hide behind Hillary’s skirts in response to the strong woman on the Republican ticket.  Somehow, I doubt that Obama can bring himself to make the kind of admission that requires, which would all but tell voters he’s not ready for the office.   And Hillary, with her eyes now on 2012, has little reason to volunteer.