2016 fever tests Hillary Clinton-Barack Obama bond
By: Edward-Isaac Dovere and Maggie Haberman
December 2, 2013 05:03 AM EST
Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton’s political marriage is about to be put to the test.
For five years their unlikely alliance has gone, by and large, smoothly. He has benefited from a widely admired secretary of state whose presence in his administration helped unite the party after their 2008 combat. She has burnished her foreign policy CV and taken a break from the political grind as she mulls a second run at the White House.
But Obama’s own recent difficulties, combined with the swirl of attention around Clinton and her intentions in 2016, is threatening to alter those dynamics — in ways that aren’t helpful to either of them.
Obama needs his party’s attention devoted to helping him salvage the final three years of his administration. But Democratic donors and activists say the growing anticipation around a possible Clinton administration three years out could accelerate the president’s arrival at lame duck status. The more Obama is viewed as a has-been, they say, the harder it could be for him to rally the party to fight for his agenda.
For Clinton, the rising 2016 speculation — which she is not actively trying to suppress — could force her to make uncomfortable choices sooner than she’d like about whether or how to distance herself from the president. The problem is that at this point neither Clinton nor anyone else knows whether Obama will recover from his worst stretch in the White House and right his second term, or whether he’ll stumble to the finish line, leaving voters with a hangover for which they won’t see her as the cure.
Obama and Clinton are both swimming against the same strengthening current, said Ed Rendell, the former Pennsylvania governor and ex-chairman of the Democratic National Committee who was a strong Clinton ally in 2008.
“She wants to stay under the radar screen and he wants her to stay under the radar screen” so the focus is on his agenda rather than the next election, said Rendell. “It’s a mutual thing.”
Yet while the extended Clintonworld is concerned about how she will deal with Obama’s record, she is showing signs of positioning herself as the inheritor of the Obama tenure —she backed him on the decision to seek congressional approval to bomb Syria and has been quiet on controversial issues like the botched Obamacare rollout. Obama aides have helped feed that perception with comments anointing Clinton as the all-but-certain nominee if she were to run.
Clinton’s close association with Obama could deprive any serious primary challenger of oxygen but become difficult in a general election if voters are looking for change.
“Hillary Clinton is the life raft on Obama’s sinking ship: Obama’s troops would be a lot less likely to abandon ship if she wasn’t around,” said Republican strategist Alex Castellanos.
He added, “Hillary has to separate from Obama to win the general election but has to hug him close to win the nomination. If she leaves any room in the primaries between Obama and her own candidacy, she creates an opening for Elizabeth Warren. It’s going to be a tough call to figure out how close to hug the leper.”
This is a special situation for two politicians who started as rivals, became teammates and could become torch-passers. Unlike 2008, when each looked to capitalize on the country’s eagerness to move beyond George W. Bush, there’s now a Democrat who needs to look like the emerging hope of the future without making the current Democratic president look like he’s part of the past.
For Obama, whose political power has often been wrapped up in the hope of what’s ahead, and Clinton, whose political future will depend in large part on not seeming like a relic of what’s behind, the question is especially pressing.
“Because of the belief that it may take the ’16 election to break through the current political paralysis, [Clinton] as such a dominant front-runner on the Democratic side could well have the high-class challenge of the base, constituencies and stakeholders looking for her to lay out her positions earlier than one may normally see,” said Democratic strategist Chris Lehane.
But Lehane argued that the entire 2016 conversation has been sped up out of precisely that concern — that Washington is broken and frozen. And adding to the rapid cycle is New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s unabashed approach to 2016, which amounts to “Of course I’m thinking about it! Bring it on!”
The Clinton question is the kind of political speculation that White House aides prefer to avoid, and they declined to comment.
With good reason, say Hill Democrats, given the White House’s recent troubles and Obama’s historically difficult relationship with members of his party in Congress.
“He’s still got the bulk of his second term left and a political panic right now only on the health care difficulties is the reason why people want to look beyond,” said Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.). “There’s a danger … if you’re going to be in a fight, you need all hands on deck.”
A number of Democrats argue that 2016 talk is premature — not only because Clinton is far from declaring a candidacy — but because Obama has fight left in him. Other Democrats counter that if Obama is flirting with becoming a lame duck so early in his second term, he has only himself to blame.
“Any reporter who writes now about President Obama as a lame duck will be embarrassed in three months,” said veteran Democratic pollster Geoff Garin. He pointed to the Senate’s recent move to invoke the so-called “nuclear option” to clear the way for most executive appointments, as well as the role Obama will play in laying out the Democratic Party’s budget priorities in upcoming negotiations.
As for whether Clinton will have to look for daylight between herself and Obama, Garin said, “We’re about a year and a half away from that question being meaningful or interesting.”
Clinton aides declined to comment. But her allies predicted that people looking for her to take high-profile opportunities to separate from Obama over the next year, as she decides whether to run, will come away disappointed.
Moving away from an administration in which she served could prove challenging for Clinton — but sticking with him could prove equally difficult. Of course, if Obama’s job approval ratings don’t improve, it may not matter which course Clinton chooses — she’ll likely be painted by rivals and critics as a continuation of Obama regardless of what she does.
Her tour in mid-2014 to promote a book she’s writing about her time at the State Department would be an opportunity to create some distance from Obama; it will most certainly provide her a chance to talk about her own views of negotiations with Iran prior to her departure from Foggy Bottom.
But some sources say it’s unlikely Clinton will pivot away from the administration during that period. It’s hard to imagine Clinton openly voicing anything other than support for the interim nuclear deal with Iran, given the anti-interventionist mood of the country and her reluctance to say things that would undermine her successor as secretary of state, John Kerry. Clinton allies and a top aide have also argued that she helped lay the groundwork for the interim diplomatic agreement, noting that she favored the sanctions that brought Iranian officials to the table and that all secretaries of state build on the work of their predecessor.
At the same time, her allies appear to be trying to preserve her options should the deal go south, describing her as concerned about Iran’s role in terrorism. Clinton voiced skepticism about the seriousness of Tehran officials shortly before the deal was struck.
Any Clinton moves on Obamacare are also being scrutinized, given her extensive work on universal health care legislation in the early 1990s and the efforts of a GOP super PAC to tie her to the current law. When Bill Clinton remarked last month that the White House should “honor” its commitment to allow people to keep their health plans under Obamacare, it was widely seen as an attempt to give his wife cover on the issue.
But Hillary Clinton herself has exhibited caution on a range of issues, after jumping headlong into specific topics like the Voting Rights Act and promising a series of policy speeches just before Obama’s push for congressional action on Syria.
“Hillary Clinton has a huge stake, in my view, in the health care plan working, otherwise we’re going to spend a lot of time in 2016 talking about 1993 and this,” said Democratic strategist Bob Shrum.
What she has done is denounce the partisan rancor that has stymied Congress for much of 2013. Some of that sentiment matches the national mood, but it’s also a product of Clinton’s unique challenge of trying not to appear like she’s “of Washington” at such an anti-establishment moment for the electorate.
In the meantime, the movement toward Clinton actually helps the president, argued Mitch Stewart, Obama’s former battleground director and now a member of the Ready for Hillary PAC. He is one of several Obama veterans gravitating toward the embryonic Clinton apparatus.
“The early excitement we are seeing is a very good thing — not only for a potential Secretary Clinton candidacy but also for the president’s agenda, the Democratic Party, and the country,” Stewart said. “One of the biggest advantages we have with the widespread grass-roots enthusiasm seen around the country is that this energy can move across a broad range of goals and issues.”
Sen. Richard Blumnethal (D-Conn.), who was a state co-chairman for Clinton’s 2008 campaign and has said he’s looking forward to her running again, put it more simply: “I can be excited about more than one thing at a time.”