Hillary Clinton makes peace with President Obama. Genuine?

Any hint of policy disagreement between potential presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and President Obama is grist for pundit comment – whether or not it amounts to what one calls 'a nothingburger.'

Associated Press
Former Secretary of State and potential 2016 presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks at Children's Hospital Oakland Research Institute in Oakland, Calif., in July.

Hillary Rodham Clinton on Tuesday apologized to President Obama for remarks many pundits deemed critical of the administration’s foreign policy.

Well, “apologized” might be putting it a bit strongly. What Mrs. Clinton really did was clarify and extend comments she made in an Atlantic interview published last weekend. Among other things, Clinton told The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg it was a “failure” to not arm moderate rebels in Syria. She said the administration’s mantra of “don’t do stupid stuff” was not a fit organizing principle for a major power in the modern world.

But that was then. This is now: On Aug. 12, Clinton called Mr. Obama to “make sure he knows that nothing she said was an attempt to attack him,” according to a Politico account of the conversation.

A Clinton spokesman noted that while the former secretary of State has had differences with Obama in the past, they’ve talked them out. She’s written of them in her memoir “Hard Choices.”

“Secretary Clinton was proud to serve with President Obama, she was proud to be his partner in the project of restoring American leadership and advancing America’s interests and values in a fast-changing world,” said spokesman Nick Merrill.

So what happened here? For one thing, Clintonworld is correct in pointing out that this “controversy” was overblown. In the original Atlantic interview, Clinton was careful to praise Obama’s leadership and overall approach. It did not read like an attempt on Clinton’s part to put distance between herself and the administration prior to an expected 2016 presidential bid. (There will be plenty of time to do that later.)

“This is a nothingburger, and idle hands will now have to come up with some fresh August furor,” writes left-leaning Ed Kilgore in the Washington Monthly.

In addition, while some of Clinton’s specific comments may have diverged from administration talking points, such a divergence was highly predictable. In 2008 she stood to the right of candidate Barack Obama on foreign issues, remember? As a senator she voted for the Iraq War, after all. Sure, she took a job in the administration, but that doesn’t necessarily mean she changed her basic approach.

“Hillary Clinton has always been a liberal on social and economic issues, but much more of a moderate (or even a conservative) when it comes to foreign policy,” writes Paul Waldman on The Washington Post’s left-leaning “Plum Line” blog.

Is there political calculation behind Hillary’s moves here? Did she mean to telegraph that’s she’s not Obama’s clone, but now has to pull back to ensure she wins the Democratic nomination before tacking right in the general election? Is she worried about appearing authentic, non-authentic, or overly cynical?

How many cabinet secretaries can dance on the head of a pin? We’ll leave such rarified politico-theological debate to people with cable news contracts. But there is a final point to make here: This whole uproar doesn’t mean Clinton would necessarily have behaved differently than Obama if she, not he, were president. Things have a way of looking different when you’re actually in charge.

Nor does it predict how she’d behave in future crises if she wins the Oval Office. Her husband’s foreign policy was quite cautious – he made sure no US boots would touch the ground of the Balkans. Hillary is not Bill, but she’s never split with him on foreign issues.

Plus, Clinton surely knows the US public is tired of war and wants nothing to do with more Middle East conflict. She may be more hawkish than Obama, but only marginally. It’s not as if she’s a closet neoconservative

“One should be very cautious making a prediction abut a candidate’s actions in office based entirely from nonbinding position-taking, especially if that person’s past actions and her incentives point in the opposite direction,” writes Jonathan Ladd, an associate professor of government at Georgetown University in an interesting post on this question at the “Mischiefs of Faction” political science blog. 

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