Hillary Clinton’s Barack Obama problem


This combination of file photos shows Former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton(L) and US President Barack Obama. Hillary Clinton may have distanced herself from President Obama's foreign policy, but he doesn't seem to have taken it personally: the two are due to attend the same soiree on Martha's Vineyard on August 13, 2014.  AFP/Getty Images

Hillary Clinton made a strategic move to begin to distance herself from President Obama's foreign policy over the weekend. It failed.

Clinton's team, concerned about the blowback from Obamaworld for her critique of his "don't do stupid stuff" comments, put a statement out Tuesday evening seeking to quiet the tensions. "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," said Clinton spokesman Nick Merrill.

That statement, of course, is not, technically, accurate.   If Clinton wasn't talking about Obama in saying that "don't do stupid stuff" wasn't an organizing principle for foreign policy then c-a-t spells "dog".  This is a clean-up-the-mess statement; the Clinton people know that it stretches credulity but don't really care -- they needed to publicly defuse the tension before the two meet on Martha's Vineyard tonight (more on that below) and this, they believe, is the best way to do so.

But, the sturm und drang of the past 72 hours proves two things: 1) The kumbaya story that the Obama and Clinton teams tell about their relationship isn't the whole story and 2) Clinton's attempts to distance herself from some of the less-popular policies of the Obama Administration will be more difficult than her team may have realized.

On the first point, there has been much effort over the past six years -- from people in both camps -- to paint the relationship between the erstwhile 2008  rivals as one of professional respect and even personal friendship. But, old wounds rarely heal over so easily and it's clear that, at least for some, the tensions that dominated the race for president six years ago remain.

In the wake of Clinton's critique-except-it's-not of Obama's foreign policy, David Axelrod, Obama's closest political adviser sent out this tweet:

Now, one tweet does not a rift make. But, there was other pushback -- mostly private and to journalists -- from the Obama camp that suggested Clinton was re-writing history in advance of her 2016 bid.

That tension flies in the face of the story Clinton has been working on building for months in the lead-up to her expected 2016 bid: That she was fusing the best of the Obama world and the best of her team into one superteam.  Ready for Hillary, the super PAC functioning as Clinton's campaign-in-waiting, has hired Jeremy Bird and Mitch Stewart, the two men who led the Obama ground game, and Tommy Vietor, a former Obama campaign spokesman turned national security communicator in the White House, helped Clinton with her recent book tour.

The reality is -- and always has been -- that the papering-over of the nastiness of the 2008 campaign was somewhat flimsy.  By all accounts, the two principals respect one another but, at the staff level, some lingering hard feelings remain.

Those hard feelings have begun to crop up as the political paths of Obama and Clinton begin to diverge in earnest -- a process that will continue over the coming weeks and months.  That reality -- coupled with the fact, as Republicans are quick to remind reporters, that Clinton was Obama's top diplomat for four years, will make the process of creating some distance between the two on a policy front difficult for the former Secretary of State.

What Clinton really wants to spend the next year (or so) doing is laying out her vision for the future of the country -- a vision that, at least from what we have seen of it to date, borrows far more from the policies of her husband's time in office than those of President Obama.  That means, at least in part, that she wants to make clear some of the differences between her and the president, particularly in the foreign policy space.

The problem that raises for Clinton, however, is that among Democratic base voters -- particularly among African Americans -- Obama remains incredibly popular and any attempt to "get away" from him will be met with resistance.  That distancing goes double for Clinton who is always and forever fighting a battle over authenticity -- whether she genuinely has a core set of beliefs or whether she takes positions solely for political positioning.

Working in Clinton's favor is the fact that there appears to be no serious challenger to her in a primary, which, theoretically, allows her more leeway in positioning herself as a centrist of sorts. Of course, if Clinton did continue to antagonize the Obama forces and the liberal left, there is the possibility that someone on the sidelines right now -- Elizabeth Warren, anyone? -- could step forward although that remains very unlikely.

The back and forth over the last 72 hours -- and the incredibly awkward "hugging it out" that a Clinton spokesman suggested might happen at  the party both the president and the former Secretary of State will be at tonight -- should serve as a reminder that the relationship between the Obamans and the Clintonites is like an iceberg: What you see above the water is only a small part of what's really going on under the surface.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton denied friction with President Obama at a book signing on Martha's Vineyard on Wednesday. (Reuters)
Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.

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Aaron Blake · August 13, 2014

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