Washington Sketch: Clinton finally ahead of Obama in popularity

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wrapped up her 11-day tour of Africa with a brief stop in Cape Verde. The seven-nation trip was aimed at emphasizing the Obama administration's interest in Africa, and Clinton pressed for good government and democratic reforms.
By Dana Milbank
Tuesday, June 15, 2010

It's about two years too late, but Hillary Clinton has finally pulled ahead of Barack Obama.

By any measure -- favorability ratings or job approval -- Americans by a sizable margin have warmer views of the secretary of state than they do of the president. This is of little use to Clinton beyond bragging rights, but among Hillary '08 fans there is some satisfaction that the woman Obama once cut down as "likable enough" is now more liked than he is. Depending on the measure and the poll, she leads him by roughly 10 to 25 percentage points.

To understand why, look no further than their calendars for Monday. The president was in Alabama and Mississippi, trying again to change the public perception that his administration has been weak in its response to the oil spill. The secretary of state was in Washington receiving plaudits for being a "passionate leader" and for taking a "resolute and genuine" stand against human trafficking and slavery.

(Photos of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton' on her trip to Africa)

In the ceremonial Ben Franklin Room of the State Department, the passionate and resolute Clinton vowed her commitment "to abolishing this horrible crime" against human dignity. "Traffickers must be brought to justice," she said.

For a public figure, few issues are as politically safe; the slavery and exploitation lobby, after all, was unlikely to issue a rebuttal. Clinton finished her day Monday with a speech on the need for help in sub-Saharan Africa; no criticism from the keep-Africa- poor movement was heard.

Contrast that with Obama, who had only grim tidings for Gulf Coast residents about the BP oil spill. He spoke to them of a "fear that it could have a long-term impact on a way of life that has been passed on for generations."

Give Obama points for honesty, but that's not going to boost his poll numbers.

Previous secretaries of state Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice were both more popular than their boss, President George W. Bush. But such a trend is not universal: Warren Christopher didn't have ratings as high as his boss, President Bill Clinton.

Hillary Clinton helped her situation by sticking to relatively low-profile issues. While the White House drove the divisive policies such as Afghanistan, she has busied herself in quieter corners of the world, enhancing the perception that she's above the political fray.

Now the former first lady and Democratic senator from New York is asserting herself in a few domestic areas. Releasing the 10th annual Trafficking in Persons report Monday, she noted that, "for the first time ever, we are also reporting on the United States of America," an effort "to ensure that our policies live up to our ideals." (The State Department gave the United States its top grade.)

Before that, Clinton offered some commentary on the domestic economy, declaring: "You've got countries who are explicitly saying to me in private, 'Well, look, you know, we always look to you because you had this great economy. And now, look, you're in the ditch, and you've dragged other people into the ditch.' "

That statement was enough to send the likes of Bill O'Reilly, the conservative Fox News commentator, to outline a potential Clinton primary challenge to Obama in 2012. There's no sign of such a challenge, but there's no disputing that Obama has fallen below Clinton.

This month's Daily Kos/Research 2000 poll found that 51 percent view Obama favorably, down from 77 percent at the time of his inauguration last year. Clinton, who had a favorability rating in the 40s during her first-lady days in 1996, has stayed in the 60s since she started the job at the State Department. The infrequently asked "job approval" question has produced an even larger Clinton edge.

Of course, Obama bested Clinton in the only poll that mattered, in 2008. But these days, Clinton is entitled to enjoy a measure of revenge. As Obama endured more complaints and sniping in the Gulf Coast on Monday, Clinton was being applauded in Foggy Bottom. Her staff started the applause as soon as she entered from the back, and an audience of human-rights types filmed her with their smartphones. The session had been billed as a "news conference," but no questions were allowed; this was more of an adoration conference.

Undersecretary Maria Otero gushed about "our top diplomat, my boss, our passionate leader and a skilled policymaker" without whom "this issue would not be to where it has gotten." An anti-trafficking activist invoked Clinton's trademark slogan: "It takes a village to raise a child. It takes a whole community to fight slavery."

Clinton was in her policy-expert element. She spoke of something known as "the paradigm of the three 'P's" and proposed a fourth "P" as well. She also reminded the crowd of her early work on trafficking 10 years ago, "in a prior life some time back."

Few could have imagined back in that prior life that the controversial and polarizing first lady would someday win the favor of two-thirds of her countrymen.

Polling director Jon Cohen contributed to this column.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company