If Hillary Clinton happened to be watching President Obama's interview with Steve Kroft on "60 Minutes" Sunday night, her former boss's answers on her decision to use a private e-mail server as secretary of state had to bring a grimace to her face.
Kroft first asked Obama if he knew that Clinton was exclusively using a private e-mail server for her communication. "No," the president replied. Kroft then followed up by asking Obama whether Clinton's server posed a "national security problem." Here's what the president said in response:
I don't think it posed a national security problem. I think that it was a mistake that she has acknowledged and — you know, as a general proposition, when we're in these offices, we have to be more sensitive and stay as far away from the line as possible when it comes to how we handle information, how we handle our own personal data. And, you know, she made a mistake. She has acknowledged it. I do think that the way it's been ginned-up is in part because of — in part — because of politics. And I think she'd be the first to acknowledge that maybe she could have handled the original decision better and the disclosures more quickly.
That's not bad, you say! He defended her! He attacked people playing politics!
And he did. But imagine if Obama had simply said the following in response to Kroft's question: "I don't think it posed a national security problem. I do think that the way it's been ginned-up is in part because of — in part — because of politics."
Simpler. Cleaner. And a lot less lukewarm.
In the response he actually gave, Obama allows that Clinton made a "mistake," says that people in public office have to "stay as far away from the line as possible," and notes that she "could have handled the original decision better and the disclosures more quickly." In his very next answer to Kroft, Obama agrees that the issue is "legitimate" before adding: "The fact that for the last three months this is all that's been spoken about is an indication that we're in presidential political season."
So no, Obama didn't "throw Clinton under the bus," as some conservative pundits and blogs shouted in the wake of the "60 Minutes" interview. But if Clinton and her campaign team could have written a scripted answer for Obama to give in response to questions about her e-mail server, you can be darn sure it wouldn't be anything close to the answer he gave.
The headline from the New York Times write-up of the interview says it all: "Obama Tells ‘60 Minutes’ Hillary Clinton Made Email ‘Mistake’" By restating the error she made and noting in a general sense that those in public life need to understand that they are held to a higher standard, Obama keeps the story in the news.
Obama, one of the savviest consumers and participants in the new world of political media, knows exactly what he is doing here. So why did he do it? Because he (a) didn't know about the e-mail server, (b) wants to make clear he didn't approve of it and (c) is generally uninterested in spending lots of his time in the final year of his presidency defending Clinton on something he thinks she shouldn't have done.
Here's a bit of breaking news: Politicians tend to see all things through the lens of "what does this mean for me?" (In that, they ARE just like us.) And for Obama, the Hillary e-mail issue has the possibility of creating a negative perception broadly of his administration — and him. If you pledge to be the most transparent president and administration ever, the idea that your pick as the nation's top diplomat was keeping all of her e-mail on a private server isn't, um, ideal.
So Obama made clear that he doesn't approve of Clinton's behavior, that questions about it are legitimate and that he thinks a lot of the talk about it amounts to a political smokescreen being put up by Republicans. The Clinton team would have been happier if he had just stuck to that last point.