Hillary Clinton’s to-do list
By: John F. Harris and Maggie Haberman
February 13, 2014 05:01 AM EST
Polls show Hillary Rodham Clinton drawing support far above any other prospective Democratic or Republican presidential candidate in 2016. The most experienced campaign operatives in the business are jostling to be by her side if she decides to run. Time magazine asks, “Can anyone stop Hillary?”
At first blush, the world’s most famous woman projects an air of invincibility.
And yet: An avalanche of coverage prompted by the relatively obscure Washington Free Beacon — which scored an impressive scoop by exploring a cache of papers with a mix of gossipy and revealing insights into her personality and marriage in the 1990s — highlighted a Clinton paradox. Her ability to dominate the national political conversation is nearly as much liability as asset, since the obsessive interest about her character, her past, and her future intentions leaves her acutely vulnerable to publicity storms that can hijack her public image and swamp her plans to carefully manage her reentry into public life.
While this week’s furor over the journal entries of Hillary Clinton’s close friend Diane Blair, who died in 2000, is likely to be ephemeral, the larger challenge facing her is not. Her professed view that there is plenty of time to worry later about presidential politics is not really true. If she decides to run for president — a campaign that will almost certainly be vigorously underway as soon as the midterm elections are over nine months from now — the window for making some decisions will start to close this year. This leaves Clinton with a very specific, very urgent to-do list in 2014, according to a variety of operatives who have been close to her previously or are watching from afar.
These are vulnerabilities she needs to start tackling right now:
• Don’t turn into Mitt Romney
Even many Democrats acknowledge that Romney might have been president if he could have narrowed the gap between himself and people who thought he was awkward, elitist, insular, and just a bit odd.
This clearly isn’t as big a challenge for Clinton, who tops surveys of the country’s most admired woman. Unlike Romney, she’s among the most well-defined politicians that exist. But she still has a considerable task in front of her to avoid making the mistakes of someone who’s been cloistered — her recent acknowledgment that she hasn’t driven a car since 1996 exploded on the Internet.
All the Clinton media speculation does two things. First, it has echoes of the old Clinton Inc., a mighty, cut-throat operation that made her seem single-minded in pursuit of power and far removed from how must people live their lives. It also causes nearly every action she takes to be seen through a political prism — and people tend to admire public figures more the further removed they are from active politics. (Witness how even George W. Bush has seen his approval ratings climb since leaving the White House.)
Her popularity soared while she was at the State Department. Prior to that, the times Clinton has been most popular have been when she has presented herself as most approachable and human — with flashes of humor, whether cutting or self-deprecating, or when she shed tears before the 2008 New Hampshire primary.
2014 is her best opportunity to present to that segment of fair-minded non-partisans or mild partisans — a group that still exists even in a polarized age — that she is likable, not simply likable enough. The biggest moment may be later this year when she releases her latest memoir and will no doubt sit for countless interviews that she wants to be about more than pure presidential politics.
In other words, Clinton needs to remind people why she became popular in the first place — a much harder task once a campaign starts officially.
• Don’t turn into Al Gore
Gore, like Romney, fell short of the presidency by failing to navigate a hovering challenge. In Gore’s case, he saw his main task as how to fashion a distinct personal and ideological identity from the president he served without allowing his campaign to be swamped by a narrative that he was breaking openly with his former partner.
For Gore, it was made harder because, by 1999, he and his then-wife Tipper were indeed deeply aggrieved and resentful toward Bill Clinton. His contortions only contributed to the perception of Gore as calculating and inauthentic. Hillary Clinton, by all appearances, is now on good personal terms with Barack Obama. Still, if there are ways she wants to separate herself from him — and a presidency now suffering its lowest approval ratings — 2014 would be the year to ever-so-subtly begin that process through speeches and interviews.
A large-scale departure from the president who appointed her to his Cabinet is unlikely, allies say. Separation would likely take place in small measures. Still, if she waits too long, any distance she tries to put between herself and the man who appointed her secretary of state will look like a move of expedience — and risk a backlash among African-American voters whose support she needs. The book Clinton is writing about her State Department years provides a potential opportunity for her to separate from Obama on specific policy points. It also lets her answer questions that the Democratic base might have on a range of issues — what she knew about the NSA spying program, for instance, or whether she thought Obama was right to approach Congress about a surgical military strike in Syria.
• Do oppo on herself
After nearly a quarter-century on the national stage, a good portion of that time under investigation by congressional, prosecutorial and media adversaries, Clinton’s aides might fairly suppose that there is nothing new that either she can learn about herself or opponents can unearth about her.
But that is a mistake. The Blair papers, in which her best friend described numerous contemporaneous conversations with both Clintons, covered mostly familiar 1990s ground: the health care debacle of ’93 and ’94, the Monica Lewinsky scandal, and so on. But they do raise the question of how many other surprise paper trails exist.
What’s more, some events or decisions that look unexceptional in real time may be viewed in a different light by 2016. Clinton learned that during her last run for president, when what she thought was the politically safe vote to authorize George W. Bush’s use of force in Iraq ended up being toxic by 2008.
In addition, the Clintons are now even wealthier than they were when she last ran, thanks to her own sizable speech income and book advance.
Someone in her fold — most likely a team led by friend and legal confidante Cheryl Mills — should spend 2014 amassing more information about Clinton than her adversaries do.
• Clean up the foundation mud-slinging
There has been a spate of negative stories about the Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation over the past nine months. Chelsea Clinton, the couple’s only child, has ascended as a major player in its newest iteration, which her name officially graced once her mother left the State Department.
Yet for all the (anonymous) criticism that has been served up against Bill Clinton adviser Doug Band, who worked for the former president throughout his post-presidency and whom Clinton credited with creating the Clinton Global Initiative, the foundation existed for 12 years without the self-savaging, very public leaks that have become routine over the past year. Average voters probably don’t care about the who’s-up, who’s-down nature of what happens at the non-profit. The specifics mostly don’t filter down. But voters may pick up on a sense of drama and in-fighting.
For the purposes of keeping clear lanes between non-profit work and potential politics, Clinton is opening an office outside her family’s foundation headquarters in Manhattan. Some of her staffers have moved north from Washington, where she’s shuttered her small transition office, and a campaign headquarters is widely expected to be in New York State.
Foundation officials insist the recent negative stories don’t impact, or reflect, the scale of positive work being done by the organization. Clinton has hired a professional staff of her own, one with experience in the issues she cares deeply about — women and children. But even before rolling out policy platforms on issues, she needs to focus on plugging any leaks in the ship.
• Define her record at Foggy Bottom
The single most important goal Clinton has for her book, due out in mid-summer, is to make people understand what she did in her four years as Secretary of State. It won’t be enough to point to miles logged traveling, a metric her aides highlighted frequently in 2012.
Her legacy at Foggy Bottom has gotten mixed reviews. Some observers say she functioned as best she could while being hamstrung by a controlling White House that kept her out of the loop. Others say her trademark caution won out on policy decisions.
Since leaving the Obama administration, she’s said she supported the Pakistan raid that claimed Osama bin Laden’s life, and helped plant the early seeds of the current talks with Iran to halt their nuclear capabilities. She backed Obama on his push for a surgical strike in Syria, one he ultimately abandoned. But she’ll be pressed to define where she stood on the stalled Mideast peace process, beyond her allies protesting that she was locked out of real discussions by Obama’s inner circle.
It remains to be seen whether voters will actually decide whether to support her or not based on what she accomplished at State. Most voters don’t ultimately cast a ballot on foreign policy. But if Clinton doesn’t start to define her record soon, it will be done for her.
• Do more with Twitter … please
Clinton has structured her Twitter feed in such a way that every time she tweets, it’s news. No 140-character opinion is too short to rate as a headline-maker.
The problem for Clinton is that Twitter is a conversation, one that users dive into obsessively, and repeatedly. The early tweets from Clinton, who’s still adjusting to the medium, have at times seemed tone-deaf, turning a larger story into something about the Secretary.
An early example was Diana Nyad’s swim in shark-infested waters as the frame for a tweet about the choppy waters Clinton herself has faced. The Super Bowl became about how other people were being kicked around by the Fox network (a more entertaining version of the genre, although the self-deprecating joke was also about Fox News, which wasn’t where the game was broadcast). Her allies argue that she is still getting her sea legs at Twitter, which users of the microblogging site hope to use as a window into her personality and where fewer tweets demonstrates more proficiency than, say, tweeting about a routine drive to a drug store. That one Super Bowl post was retweeted 50,000 times in a few hours.
Twitter has become an essential tool for candidates, but it can backfire, too. David Axelrod once described campaigns as an MRI for the soul. So, to some extent, is a lightning-fast medium where errant posts have cost people their jobs. Clinton needs Twitter to connect with a certain generation, and when and if she has an actual campaign, use it as effectively as possible. She had an excellent social media staff at the State Department, and she must replicate it now that she’s forming her own team.
• Get some ideas
Few operatives think 2014 is the time to be plunging deeply into policy proposals and describing the details of a Clinton presidency.
But 2014 is the time to start identifying herself with some large themes that lay the basis and the rationale for a candidacy. It is striking that Clinton finished eight years in the Senate, a presidential campaign, and four years at State without being identified with any big signature idea or policy proposal.
If she plans to run, the candidacy likely needs to be about more than an appeal to “making history” as the first woman president — especially in the wake of eight years of an Obama presidency that emphasized biography and symbolism, to mixed reviews.
• Get some rest
This was what 2013 was supposed to be all about, according to the interviews she gave at the time. She wanted to hang out with family and friends, get in good shape, and so on.
Instead, she has traveled frequently, made money with speeches before groups and for fees that have exceeded $200,000, and waded into a handful of policy controversies.
If she ever does want to get that deep rest she promised herself, 2014 might be the last chance to do so for many years — despite that overflowing to-do list.