The Audacity to Be Authentic: Hillary Clinton’s Risky Hedge Against Obama

Conventional wisdom says it’s smart to attack an unpopular president. Conventional wisdom may be wrong.

National Journal
Ron Fournier
Aug. 12, 2014, 5:47 a.m.

The rap against Hil­lary Clin­ton is that she’s a cyn­ic­al and con­niv­ing pub­lic fig­ure who hardly takes a breath without cal­cu­lat­ing the polit­ic­al ad­vant­age of a sigh. That ca­ri­ca­ture fueled cov­er­age of Clin­ton’s pub­lic break from Pres­id­ent Obama on glob­al af­fairs. “The be­ne­fits to Clin­ton are clear,” wrote Ju­liet Eilper­in, chan­nel­ing con­ven­tion­al wis­dom for The Wash­ing­ton Post.

But I’m not so sure the former sec­ret­ary of State has helped her­self polit­ic­ally. It may be that we’ve just wit­nessed a rare and risky act of au­then­ti­city.

To re­view, Clin­ton told Jef­frey Gold­berg of The At­lantic that Obama failed in Syr­ia by re­fus­ing to back rebel forces, as she had ad­vised. Clin­ton also dis­missed Obama’s em­phas­is on avoid­ing mis­takes over­seas that might lead to mil­it­ary con­front­a­tion — a philo­sophy he privately la­bels, “Don’t do stu­pid shit.” Echo­ing the pres­id­ent’s crit­ics, she told Gold­berg, “Great na­tions need or­gan­iz­ing prin­ciples — and ‘Don’t do stu­pid stuff’ is not an or­gan­iz­ing prin­ciple.”

On one level, this is a sens­ible move for a likely 2016 pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate. Her former boss’s job-ap­prov­al rat­ing hov­ers meekly around 40 per­cent, and an even smal­ler per­cent­age of Amer­ic­ans ap­pre­ci­ate the way he’s handled the spate of glob­al crises.

“It’s in her polit­ic­al in­terest to be­gin to dis­tance her­self from an un­pop­u­lar pres­id­ent and to drive home the fact that she’s risk-ready while Obama’s risk-ad­verse,” Aaron Dav­id Miller, vice pres­id­ent for new ini­ti­at­ives at the Wilson Cen­ter, told Eilper­in.

An­oth­er keen ob­serv­er, Mark Land­ler of The New York Times, wrote that Clin­ton is sug­gest­ing she would pro­ject Amer­ic­an power much dif­fer­ently than Obama. “His view is cau­tious, in­ward-look­ing, suf­fused with a sense of lim­its, while hers is mus­cu­lar, op­tim­ist­ic, un­abashedly old-fash­ioned.”

Set­ting aside the ob­vi­ous fact that “un­abashedly old-fash­ioned” is the ex­act op­pos­ite of Clin­ton’s ideal cam­paign slo­gan, I won­der wheth­er un­der­scor­ing her hawk­ish ways is, in the long run, more help­ful or hurt­ful. Re­mem­ber, there was a time early in the 2008 pres­id­en­tial cycle when con­ven­tion­al wis­dom dic­tated that 1) sup­port­ing the Ir­aq War was the smart polit­ic­al move; and 2) Sen. Hil­lary Rod­ham Clin­ton would eas­ily win the Demo­crat­ic pres­id­en­tial nom­in­a­tion.

Her im­me­di­ate prob­lem is with the Demo­crat­ic base, which has al­ways viewed Clin­ton war­ily as an in­ter­ven­tion­ist. Mi­chael Co­hen, a fel­low at the pro­gress­ive Cen­tury Found­a­tion, told Politico that Clin­ton’s ap­proach was “out of touch with Demo­crats in 2008, and it’s out of touch now.”

In­flu­en­tial lib­er­al writer Joan Walsh of called Clin­ton’s re­marks “sober­ing” and fired a warn­ing shot. “Clin­ton may think she can write off the anti-in­ter­ven­tion­ist left — again — and win the White House this time,” she wrote. “But she may find out she’s wrong this time, too.”

Clin­ton needs to brace for stiff chal­lenges in 2016, from in­side and out­side her party. There will be no coron­a­tion. The next sev­er­al elec­tion cycles are go­ing to be wildly un­pre­dict­able, as an elect­or­ate buf­feted by ti­tan­ic eco­nom­ic and so­ci­olo­gic­al shifts grows to de­mand the sort of dis­rup­tion of polit­ic­al and gov­ern­ment­al in­sti­tu­tions that they’ve wit­nessed else­where, most prom­in­ently in the re­tail, me­dia, and en­ter­tain­ment in­dus­tries.

OK, bash­ing Obama causes prob­lems with the Demo­crat­ic base. But she’s tri­an­gu­lat­ing away from both Obama and Pres­id­ent Bush to ap­peal to in­de­pend­ents in the gen­er­al elec­tion, right? I’m not so sure. Polls sug­gest that Obama is far more con­nec­ted to pub­lic sen­ti­ment than Clin­ton is.

A re­cent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showed that 47 per­cent of re­spond­ents called for a less-act­ive role in world af­fairs, a lar­ger share than in sim­il­ar polling in 2001, 1997, and 1995. Last year, the Pew Re­search Cen­ter re­por­ted that a re­cord 53 per­cent of Amer­ic­ans want their coun­try to “mind its own busi­ness in­ter­na­tion­ally.”

The pub­lic is of two minds about Obama. They agree with his Amer­ica-first, don’t-rush-to-war philo­sophy; they just don’t like how he’s pro­ject­ing it. He dith­ers and waffles, and seems to be a men­tal step be­hind ad­versar­ies like Rus­si­an Pres­id­ent Vl­ad­mir Putin.

If I’m read­ing the pub­lic cor­rectly, Amer­ic­ans aren’t clam­or­ing for a mus­cu­lar and old-fash­ioned hawk as much as they want a prag­mat­ic lead­er, some­body they feel they can be proud of, who puts them first and keeps them safe. They want what Obama prom­ised to be.

Clin­ton may be aim­ing for that sweet spot between Bush’s bel­li­ger­ence and Obama’s neg­lect — what Karl Rove called the “Goldilocks of for­eign policy.” But I could think of safer, more cal­cu­lated ways of go­ing about it than stiff-arm­ing the Demo­crat­ic base and beat­ing war drums over Syr­ia.

In her mem­oir, Hard Choices, Clin­ton apo­lo­gized for her sup­port of the Ir­aq War, but she has made no secret of her in­ter­ven­tion­ist streak. She wanted more troops in Afgh­anistan than Obama, for ex­ample, and was not “swept up in the drama and ideal­ism” of the Ar­ab Spring like oth­er, young­er White House aides.

Call me naïve, but maybe Clin­ton is simply be­ing hon­est. After all, that’s really what Amer­ic­ans want in a lead­er.

UP­DATE: Maybe I jumped the gun. After weath­er­ing some push­back from the White House, in­clud­ing a snarky tweet by Obama con­sult­ant Dav­id Axel­rod, Clin­ton re­leased this state­ment through a spokes­man:

“Earli­er today, the Sec­ret­ary called Pres­id­ent Obama to make sure he knows that noth­ing she said was an at­tempt to at­tack him, his policies or his lead­er­ship. Sec­ret­ary Clin­ton has at every step of the way touted the sig­ni­fic­ant achieve­ments of his pres­id­ency, which she is honored to have been part of as his sec­ret­ary of state. While they’ve had hon­est dif­fer­ences on some is­sues, in­clud­ing as­pects of the wicked chal­lenge Syr­ia presents, she has ex­plained those dif­fer­ences in her book and at many points since then. Some are now choos­ing to hype those dif­fer­ences but they do not ec­lipse their broad agree­ment on most is­sues. Like any two friends who have to deal with the pub­lic eye, she looks for­ward to hug­ging it out when she they see each oth­er to­mor­row night.”

There are sev­er­al prob­lems with this state­ment. First, it’s in­ac­cur­ate. She cer­tainly did cri­ti­cize his policies, if not his lead­er­ship, most dir­ectly with the “stu­pid stuff” for­mu­la­tion. Second, it’s bor­der­line de­mean­ing, like a sub­or­din­ate try­ing to get back in the boss’s good graces. Clin­ton is an ac­com­plished per­son who has chal­lenged glass ceil­ings. She shouldn’t have to come even close to apo­lo­giz­ing for her opin­ions. Third, her in­ter­view wasn’t “hyped,” it was covered fairly, and now she’s try­ing to blame the mes­sen­ger. Fi­nally, it’s too cute by half, too Clin­to­nian. It doesn’t seem, well, au­then­t­ic. She’s try­ing to dis­tin­guish her policies from Obama’s without up­set­ting all the pres­id­ent’s men. She can’t have it all.