DAVENPORT, Iowa — In the run-up to the first Democratic presidential debate, embattled front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton is attempting to set herself apart by criticizing one Democrat in particular: President Obama.
With direct comparisons and implicit criticism, Clinton is increasingly using the Obama White House — and the popular occupant who isn’t running — to say what she would do differently in a Clinton White House.
Much of her new criticism of Obama on issues such as immigration and the Keystone XL pipeline is a way to appeal to progressive voters disappointed by some administration positions. The critiques also allow her to draw distinctions with Vice President Biden, a potential late-entering challenger for the Democratic nomination.
The positioning marks a notable shift for Clinton, who has spent much of her campaign embracing Obama’s broader agenda in hopes of harnessing the coalition of young and minority voters who helped propel him to two terms in the White House.
In a Telemundo interview aired this week, for example, Clinton was blunt in saying that Obama’s gambit to go hard on deportations and immigration enforcement early in his tenure had failed to persuade Republicans to agree to wider reforms.
“I’m not going to be breaking up families,” Clinton said in the interview, which aired in segments Sunday and Monday. “. . . I totally understand why the Obama administration felt as though they did what they did under the circumstances. But I think we’ve learned that the Republicans, at least the current crop, are just not acting in good faith.”
Clinton has said in recent days that she would take executive action that Obama has not taken on gun control, and has implied that the president should have done more to prevent congressional Republicans from forming a special committee to investigate the 2012 attacks in Benghazi, Libya.
The committee’s work is “not appropriate,” the former secretary of state said Monday on NBC’s “Today” show, citing remarks by House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) boasting about Clinton’s dropping poll numbers while the committee is investigating her. If Congress considered a similar politically influenced investigation while she was president, Clinton added pointedly, “I would have done everything to shut it down.”
Her pledge Saturday not to forget gay rights if elected also sounded to some like a dig at Obama for his go-slow approach to repealing the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.
“I will do my part to make sure that these issues get the attention they deserve in the presidential campaign and, more importantly, in the White House,” Clinton told the Human Rights Campaign.
On guns, Clinton has promised to further narrow a loophole that lets people buy and sell firearms at gun shows or on the Internet without being subject to the same level of background checks required at brick-and-mortar stores. She proposed Monday to set a threshold for bulk gun sales that would subject more dealers to the background-check rule, even when selling at shows or online. That’s a suggestion that has been put to Obama, too, as a follow-up to other executive actions in 2013.
Those positions came on top of her call last week for a no-fly zone to protect civilians in Syria — something the White House has so far ruled out — and her rejection earlier of the Keystone pipeline, which is still under consideration by the administration.
This week, Clinton could go further, and put additional liberal pressure on Biden, if she declares opposition to the newly negotiated Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. Key labor unions and many progressive activists oppose the deal, a cornerstone of Obama’s Pacific Rim policy.
Clinton declined to take a position on the pact Tuesday: “I’m going to be diving into that tonight,” she said.
Putting distance between herself and the president she used to serve as the nation’s top diplomat has risks, particularly among voters who helped elect Obama and still support him. But Clinton is seeking to chart her own policy agenda — more liberal on many fronts and more hawkish on others — and reassert control of the primary race.
She has said she will not attack close competitor Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) but is looking forward to Tuesday’s debate to make her case. Clinton has also said that Biden, grieving the death of his son this year, should be given time to make a decision about running. Any overt criticism of the vice president at this point could appear unseemly, but the Clinton campaign has stressed her head start in fundraising and the race for Democratic delegates behind the scenes.
On the stump, Clinton regularly praises Obama for “getting us out of this ditch” of the Great Recession and beginning to grow jobs. She tells audiences Obama does not get enough credit for that task but often leaves mention of the president at that.
On paper, she agrees with the vast bulk of Obama’s record, with Syria as a major exception. She was on the losing side of an administration debate over arming and training moderate rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Over the past month, Clinton has recommended that the United States take in 65,000 Syrian refugees — more than six times the current allotment — and has said the rebel training program Obama began after she left office has failed.
On Iraq, however, Clinton sounds like a firm convert to Obama’s view that U.S. troops on the ground there would probably make the situation worse instead of better. It was Clinton’s Senate vote in favor of the Iraq war that helped Obama defeat her for the Democratic nomination in 2008.
But now, she told an audience here Thursday, “I am not inclined to do anything that would put American boots on the ground” in Iraq.