The Audacity to Be Authentic: Hillary Clinton's Risky Hedge Against Obama
Conventional wisdom says it's smart to attack an unpopular president. Conventional wisdom may be wrong.
By Ron Fournier
The rap against Hillary Clinton is that she's a cynical and conniving public figure who hardly takes a breath without calculating the political advantage of a sigh. That caricature fueled coverage of Clinton's public break from President Obama on global affairs. "The benefits to Clinton are clear," wrote Juliet Eilperin, channeling convention wisdom for The Washington Post.
But I'm not so sure the former secretary of State has helped herself politically. It may be that we've just witnessed a rare and risky act of authenticity.
To review, Clinton told Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic that Obama failed in Syria by refusing to back rebel forces, as she had advised. Clinton also dismissed Obama's emphasis on avoiding mistakes overseas that might lead to military confrontation—a philosophy he privately labels, "Don't do stupid shit." Echoing the president's critics, she told Goldberg, "Great nations need organizing principles—and 'Don't do stupid stuff' is not an organizing principle."
On one level, this is a sensible move for a likely 2016 presidential candidate. Her former boss's job-approval rating hovers meekly around 40 percent, and an even smaller percentage of Americans appreciate the way he's handled the spate of global crises.
"It's in her political interest to begin to distance herself from an unpopular president and to drive home the fact that she's risk-ready while Obama's risk-adverse," Aaron David Miller, vice president for new initiatives at the Wilson Center, told Eilperin.
Another keen observer, Mark Landler of The New York Times, wrote that Clinton is suggesting she would project American power much differently than Obama. "His view is cautious, inward-looking, suffused with a sense of limits, while hers is muscular, optimistic, unabashedly old-fashioned."
Setting aside the obvious fact that "unabashedly old-fashioned" is the exact opposite of Clinton's ideal campaign slogan, I wonder whether underscoring her hawkish ways is, in the long run, more helpful or hurtful. Remember, there was a time early in the 2008 presidential cycle when conventional wisdom dictated that 1) supporting the Iraq War was the smart political move and; 2) Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton would easily win the Democratic presidential nomination.
Her immediate problem is with the Democratic base, which has always viewed Clinton warily as an interventionist. Michael Cohen, a fellow at the progressive Century Foundation, told Politico that Clinton's approach was "out of touch with Democrats in 2008, and it's out of touch now."
Influential liberal writer Joan Walsh of Salon.com called Clinton's remarks "sobering" and fired a warning shot. "Clinton may think she can write off the anti-interventionist left—again—and win the White House this time," she wrote. "But she may find out she's wrong this time, too."
Clinton needs to brace for stiff challenges in 2016, from inside and outside her party. There will be no coronation. The next several election cycles are going to be wildly unpredictable, as an electorate buffeted by titanic economic and sociological shifts grows to demand the sort of disruption of political and governmental institutions that they've witnessed elsewhere, most prominently in the retail, media, and entertainment industries.
OK, bashing Obama causes problems with the Democratic base. But she's triangulating away from both Obama and President Bush to appeal to independents in the general election, right? I'm not so sure. Polls suggest that Obama is far more connected to public sentiment than Clinton is.
A recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showed that 47 percent of respondents called for a less-active role in world affairs, a larger share than in similar polling in 2001, 1997, and 1995. Last year, the Pew Research Center reported that a record 53 percent of Americans want their country to "mind its own business internationally."