In recent weeks, as the standoff over Ukraine escalated, Hillary Clinton did something that she never did as secretary of State: She put considerable distance between herself and the president she served loyally for four years. While Barack Obama cautiously warned Vladimir Putin to back off his claims on Ukraine, Clinton rolled out a rhetorical cannon, comparing the Russian president's moves to the seizure of territory by Adolf Hitler that set off World War II. Her comments were so harsh and controversial that she was forced to walk them back a bit, saying, "I'm not making a comparison, certainly, but I am recommending that we perhaps can learn from this tactic that has been used before."
Clinton's remarks appeared to be an indication of two things. One, she's concerned enough about shoring up her reputation for toughness that she may indeed be thinking about running for president in 2016. Clinton offered up, in other words, a rare and enticing hint about the question that everyone in the politics game is asking these days. Undoubtedly she knows that the effort she led as secretary of State in 2009, an attempted "reset" of relations with Russia that included a new arms treaty, now looks naive in the face of Putin's repudiation of Obama over Ukraine and his lack of cooperation on other issues, such as resolution of the Syrian civil war. Two, Clinton could be worried that by the time the next presidential season rolls around, what was once seen as one of Obama's stronger points—foreign policy—could easily become a liability to whomever is seeking the Democratic nomination.
That was not the case in 2012, when even some Republican foreign policy professionals, many of whom had worked for George W. Bush, agreed that Obama's foreign policy had been impressive in ways that went well beyond his signature achievement: the 2011 takedown of Osama bin Laden. The president also orchestrated a new set of allied sanctions against Iran and the first fundamental reorientation of U.S. strategic and military focus—from the Middle East to East Asia—in more than a decade. The worst blot on his first-term record, the embarrassing Benghazi scandal involving the killing of a U.S. ambassador and three other Americans, didn't happen until the final months of the campaign, limiting the damage. It was no surprise that Mitt Romney's repeated efforts to paint Obama as weak on foreign policy came to naught.
But little has gone right so far in the second term, especially in recent months, with the possible exception of the ongoing nuclear talks with Iran. Putin's continued recalcitrance, and Obama's hesitancy over how to react to the biggest foreign policy test of his presidency, is only the capstone to a series of apparent failures and abortive efforts to avert war in Syria, resolve the situation in Afghanistan, and tamp down the resurgence of al-Qaida. If, as is likely, Russian forces are still occupying Crimea come 2016—or worse, advancing westward—if chaos and bloodshed still reign in Syria, and if Afghanistan begins to look as chaotic as Iraq has in the aftermath of the planned U.S. troop withdrawal at the end of this year, the narrative will be very different in the next presidential campaign.
Republican attacks on Obama in recent months are an early indication of what's to come. Sen. John McCain, Obama's 2008 opponent, has been almost beside himself with fury in condemning the president as weak on Ukraine, Syria, China, and Iran. With negotiations failing over Syria, Egypt becoming a military-run state, and Putin indicating he intends to stay where he is in Crimea, the killing of bin Laden will be but a distant memory in 2016. Even some prominent Democrats, such as Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez, have turned into persistent critics of Obama's policies abroad. "Our policies toward Russia require urgent reexamination," Menendez wrote in The Washington Post this week.
To be fair, Clinton has often been the Democrat staking out rhetorically tough positions on foreign policy, even appearing to act as Obama's bad cop during her term as secretary of State. Back then, the president depended on her to hammer Iran (which was becoming a "military dictatorship," she declared), criticize the Chinese over Internet censorship, and harangue Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over his defiance of U.S. demands for a settlement freeze.
In addition, as National Journal reported last week, the likely contenders in the Republican field are largely lacking in foreign policy expertise, while Clinton and another possible Democratic candidate for 2016, Vice President Joe Biden, have plenty of it. "I lose no sleep over this," says Democratic strategist and former Clinton pollster Stanley Greenberg. "Hillary is strong and will have a strong team. There will be a sense of change in direction [in 2016]. And Republicans will waste their time on Benghazi and extreme over-the-top partisan reactions to events. I do not think there will be any appetite for their return to power to manage the affairs of state."
But another Democratic pollster, Jay Campbell of Hart Research, says that to achieve that "change in direction," Clinton may need to, in effect, separate herself from her own legacy. She could succeed at that simply by emphasizing how much time has lapsed since she left the State Department, a process she may already be starting. "It's absolutely true that things are tough for the president all around right now, whereas before, his foreign policy and relations with the world were one of the high points for a long time," Campbell says. "She can credibly create the separation for herself. It's going to be a lot tougher for Vice President Biden."
A Show of Presidential Strength
This article appears in the March 15, 2014 edition of National Journal Magazine as The Distancing.