Why Hillary Clinton needs to distance herself from Obama

While making it official she is thinking about running for president, Hillary Clinton has already begun the distancing process: She and Obama are friends, she says in an interview, but they have their differences. 

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton talks about Syria during an event at the White House in Washington, September 9, 2013.

Hillary Clinton has made it official: She’s definitely thinking of running for president in 2016. The industry of Hillary-watchers had long assumed that to be the case, but in her first media interview since leaving the secretary of State’s office, Mrs. Clinton confirmed that she may run again.

“I ask Clinton the question that trails her like a thought bubble: Does she wrestle with running for president?” writes Joe Hagan in the latest issue of New York magazine.

“I do,” she says, “but I’m both pragmatic and realistic. I think I have a pretty good idea of the political and governmental challenges that are facing our leaders, and I’ll do whatever I can from whatever position I find myself in to advocate for the values and the policies I think are right for the country.”

It’s a hedge, but still a significant step away from how she used to respond to the incessant “will you run again” drumbeat when she was still in President Obama’s cabinet.

She used to insist she was ready to step off the “high wire of American politics,” as she once put it. Now she’s thrown a big bone to her legions of fans who are ready to donate, volunteer, and ultimately vote for the person with the clearest shot of keeping the White House in Democratic hands after Mr. Obama leaves office – and yes, of becoming the first woman president of the United States.

But in the interview, Clinton also makes it clear that even though she and Obama long ago overcame the rivalry born of their epic nomination battle in 2008, and are now friends, they don’t agree on everything.

“I feel comfortable raising issues with him,” Clinton said. “I had a very positive set of interactions, even when I disagreed, which obviously occurred, because obviously I have my own opinions, my own views.”

This slight distancing from Obama may, in fact, be an essential ingredient to a successful Clinton campaign.

Modern history shows that there’s a natural pendulum to the presidency: a term or two for one party, then it’s the other party’s turn. When George H.W. Bush succeeded President Reagan in 1988 – winning what is often described as Mr. Reagan’s third term – that was an anomaly. So even though the Republicans face significant challenges as a national party able to win a majority of the popular vote in a presidential race, Clinton can’t count on that as she charts a possible 2016 campaign.

Reagan’s job approval before the 1988 election was above 50 percent, according to the Gallup poll. Obama is at 44 percent in Gallup – which is also his average of major polls at RealClearPolitics.com – and has been drifting downward all year.   

For Clinton, running to succeed Obama could be an even bigger high-wire act than the 20 years she spent as first lady, US senator, presidential candidate, and secretary of State.

If she wins the nomination, she will need Obama’s most devoted constituencies – particularly the minorities who were especially motivated to elect the first black president – to be just as enthusiastic about her. Clinton can’t alienate those voters. But if Obama continues to slide in public esteem, that could become a liability for her. The state of the economy and of US involvement overseas, two key factors that play into Obama’s job approval, will be critical to her chances as well.

The state of Washington as a hyperpartisan swamp, a source of deep public dissatisfaction, could also affect her chances. In her New York interview, she presented the kernels of a message for 2016.

­“People are stereotypes, they are caricaturized,” said Clinton. “It comes from both sides of the political aisle, it comes from the press. It’s all about conflict, it’s all about personality, and there are huge stakes in the policies that are being debated, and I think there’s a hunger amongst a very significant, maybe even a critical mass of Americans, clustered on the left, right, and center, to have an adult conversation about how we’re going to solve these problems … but it’s not for the fainthearted.”

It was Obama’s hopeful message of post-partisanship that helped him get elected in 2008, the article notes, and for now, Clinton is staying above the fray – but also hinting at language that could give the public new hope in the post-Obama era.

“I have a lot of reason to believe, as we saw in the 2012 election, most Americans don’t agree with the extremists on any side of an issue,” Clinton said, “but there needs to continue to be an effort to find common ground, or even take it to higher ground on behalf of the future.”

Whether Clinton will be leading that effort remains to be seen, but those close to her seem certain she will.

“She’s running, but she doesn’t know it yet,” said a Clinton confidant authorized by her staff to speak to the magazine.

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