Here’s How Hillary Clinton Will Distance Herself From Barack Obama

She may have tipped her hand in a post-State of the Union tweet.

National Journal
Ron Fournier
Jan. 22, 2015, 8:44 a.m.

Any­body won­der­ing how Hil­lary Clin­ton would dis­tance her­self from Pres­id­ent Obama in 2016 needs only to parse her post-State of the Uni­on tweet:

The first sen­tence en­vel­ops Obama in an em­brace—something her hus­band of­ten did to his rivals be­fore dig­ging a shiv between their ribs. The next day, she told a Ca­na­dian audi­ence that Obama doesn’t get the cred­it he de­serves for lead­ing the United States out of re­ces­sion.

The polit­ic­al me­dia took her at face value—al­ways a risky route with the Clin­tons. “Hil­lary hugs Obama—again,” de­clared the NBC polit­ic­al blog First Read. “Clin­ton [tied] her­self to Obama’s eco­nom­ic pro­grams,” The Wash­ing­ton Post re­por­ted.

The second sen­tence of her tweet is the key—the so­cial-me­dia shiv. “Now we need to step up and de­liv­er for the middle class.”

Key word: De­liv­er.

Friends and as­so­ci­ates of the former sec­ret­ary of State, in­clud­ing some who are pre­par­ing her for a likely pres­id­en­tial bid, say Clin­ton ob­vi­ously will em­brace Obama’s pro­gress­ive eco­nom­ic agenda. Middle-class tax cuts, ju­di­cial re­form, paid sick leave, and free com­munity-col­lege tu­ition are the sort of policies that Clin­ton has pre­vi­ously sup­por­ted—and would cer­tainly push in the fu­ture.

Clin­ton is not wor­ried about be­ing as­so­ci­ated with Obama’s policies, as­so­ci­ates say. Her chal­lenge is to con­vince voters that, un­like Obama, she can de­liv­er on her prom­ises.

“He can blame Re­pub­lic­ans and all sort of struc­tur­al prob­lems—and get sym­pathy from a lot of us,” said one as­so­ci­ate who spoke on con­di­tion of an­onym­ity so that she could chan­nel Clin­ton’s think­ing. “But voters don’t want to hear that. They want shit done. He hasn’t got­ten shit done.”

The Clin­ton team is dis­cuss­ing how to draw a con­trast between Obama’s lead­er­ship skills and hers—without overtly in­sult­ing the pres­id­ent.

I had cof­fee re­cently with an ad­viser to both Bill and Hil­lary Clin­ton. Halfway through an an­im­ated con­ver­sa­tion about the 2016 pres­id­en­tial cam­paign, he grabbed my nap­kin and sketched out how Clin­ton might con­trast her­self to Obama. He wrote:  

Con­sensus build­er > Loner

Plod­der > Celebrity

Listen­er > Lec­turer

Doer > Talk­er

In­ter­est­ing stuff. But this per­son was not able to tell me ex­actly how Clin­ton would align her­self with the can-do at­trib­utes on the left side of is list—ex­cept to say “she has a bio­graphy and a back­ground that lends it­self to the case.” Sens­it­ive to the grow­ing in­flu­ence of the Demo­crat­ic Party’s ex­treme lib­er­al wing, this ad­viser said the dif­fer­ences between Clin­ton and Obama are far less ideo­lo­gic­al than they are a mat­ter of per­son­al­ity, ex­per­i­ence, and lead­er­ship qual­it­ies.

Yet an­oth­er Clin­ton as­so­ci­ate, a long­time friend, said the former sec­ret­ary of State doesn’t want to be the “third pres­id­ent of po­lar­iz­a­tion.”

Each of the of­fi­cials said this line of thought pre­cedes Obama’s rise in the polls; if his pop­ular­ity con­tin­ues to climb and sus­tains it­self, she ob­vi­ously would be less in­clined to dis­tance her­self. That’s not likely to hap­pen; his­tor­ic­ally, two-term pres­id­ents leave be­hind weary voters—and would-be suc­cessors trip­ping over the sit­ting pres­id­ent’s shad­ow.

In her Win­nipeg ad­dress, Clin­ton called Obama’s eco­nom­ic pro­pos­als “an im­port­ant start for a crit­ic­al de­bate.” That sig­nals the ob­vi­ous fact that the gen­er­a­tion­al chal­lenges of in­come in­equal­ity, wage stag­na­tion, and de­clin­ing so­cial mo­bil­ity will out­last Obama. But there’s more to her think­ing.

Clin­ton also be­lieves that voters want the next pres­id­ent to get bey­ond “a crit­ic­al de­bate” and forge ac­tu­al solu­tions. They want some­body to step up and de­liv­er.

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