What Hillary Clinton is doing by slamming President Obama’s foreign policy


In this July 15, 2014, photo, former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton reacts to host Jon Stewart during a taping of "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart," in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

Former Secretary of State and all-but-announced presidential candidate Hillary Clinton offered her most public break yet from President Obama over the weekend, slamming his "don't do stupid [stuff]" foreign policy and suggesting he had not been aggressive enough in asserting America's role in the world.

"Great nations need organizing principles -- and 'Don't do stupid stuff' is not an organizing principle," Clinton told the Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg in a line that surely launched a thousand grimaces (or worse) in the White House. She went on to explain that she doesn't actually believe that statement sums up Obama's entire foreign policy. “I think that that’s a political message. It’s not his worldview,"  she said. “… I think [Obama] was trying to communicate to the American people that he’s not going to do something crazy."

But Clinton, of course, knew what she was doing -- picking a prominent foreign policy writer to make a pointed critique of the current Administration's policies at the very moment when President Obama's ratings are at -- or damn close to -- their lowest ebb of his time in office. So, why did she do it -- and what does her willingness to so publicly break with the Obama Administration tell us about how she's positioning herself for 2016?

Here are three thoughts.

1) Clinton isn't worried about the Democratic primary. At all.  Consider the 2008 race. By this time in that contest, then Illinois Sen. Barack Obama had already emerged as a potentially potent political force who was running to Clinton's ideological left largely on his opposition to the Iraq war.  Clinton would never have made such a hawkish statement as this one back then, worried that it would embolden an already-rising Obama. (It turned out that Clinton's vote for the use of force resolution and her unwillingness to back away from it was enough for Obama to capitalize.) Why do it now then? Because she is supremely confident that there simply is no serious primary challenger out there who would be emboldened to take on the race because of her more hawkish (than Obama at least) views on foreign policy. Sure, people like Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders or former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer might run in 2016 against Clinton but she doesn't spend one second worrying about them.  This positioning on foreign policy -- that America needs to be more aggressive in asserting its views on the world stage -- is entirely aimed at a general electorate.

2) Clinton as ready on day one. Remember that "3 a.m. phone call" ad? The idea was that Barack Obama was untested on the world stage and sought to raise the question in voters' minds whether the freshman Illinois Senator was the person they wanted dealing with a complex world. Now, six years later, there are many people -- Democrats, Independents and, obviously, Republicans -- who believe that Obama wasn't prepared to take on the various challenges the changing world presented to him. Clinton's "organizing principle" argument is aimed directly at those doubts about Obama. Her argument is a simple one: I know the world. I know how complicated it is. I know all of these things because I have spent decades in government (and out of government) studying them, building relationships with foreign leaders, developing best practices.  On day one, I step into the job with a broad idea of how I want America to be seen in the world -- and a plan to make it happen.

3) Clinton wants people to remember she never always agreed with Obama. One of the challenges Clinton will face in 2016 -- although not the biggest challenge -- is her association with Obama, particularly on foreign policy. (She was, after all, the top diplomat in the Obama Administration for his first term.) What Clinton does not want to do, however, is be forced to own every decision the President made -- especially those that she disagreed with. On Afghanistan, Clinton -- along with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates -- advocated for putting more troops in the country. On Libya , Clinton was a lead voice making the case for a military intervention to topple Muammar Gaddafi. And, in the interview with Goldberg, Clinton calls the U.S.'s decision to not actively involve itself in the early days of the uprising in Syria a "failure".  There will be plenty on the foreign policy front that Clinton will have to own -- "pushing the reset button" with Russia, anyone? -- but she also wants to make very clear that had she been president, our foreign policy might have looked very different over the past six years.

Clinton does very little by accident in the public space. This interview with Goldberg was no exception.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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