Why Obama Mentioned His Beaten Foe Hillary Clinton in the SOTU: A Theory

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HIllarySOTU.jpgIn my mark-up of this latest State of the Union address, I mention that it seemed odd and uncalled-for, on the president's part, to refer to the current Secretary of State as someone who had run against him in the primaries -- and who obviously had lost. On second glance, the reference seems even less gracious that it did at first. Obama identifies Hillary Clinton only as "a woman who ran against me for president." (Photo at the SOTU.)

A reader says there may have been a deeper logic:

I wanted to address the Hilary Clinton reference. It is, I believe, the first reference he's made to Sec. Clinton as a former foe since taking office. I was surprised by it, as were you, and I thought a bit about it.

I took three things away from it.

One is that this year, there will be a Republican battle for the nomination, but none on the Democratic side. Obviously, that's good for the incumbent, but it gives voters with short memory no basis for comparison between the Democratic candidate and the Republican contenders. That reference brought that battle back to mind and reminded us how much more intelligent and focused both Democratic candidates seemed compared to the current combatants. I was an ardent Obama supporter four years ago, and developed a deep dislike for both Clintons during the race, which is quite remarkable to me now considering that I had been a big fan of Bill's previously and am mightily impressed by Hillary now. But in retrospect, that campaign, and particularly the positive way that it was waged by the eventual winner stands in such stark contrast to what we are seeing today, I think it was worth a reference in the speech.

Second is the Team of Rivals meme that seemed so important at the time but has somewhat faded from memory. He bonded with Lincoln during the speech and he now references his SOS as a former rival. In case people want to cast his "working as a team" references as rhetoric, he can point to a former and sometimes bitter rival who is now an essential member of his team. That's the way politics is supposed to work. Strong people slug it out, then shake hands and work together. That doesn't seem to happen any more across party lines and by referencing the arc of his relationship with Sec. Clinton, he his showing that it is them who refuse to play well together, not him.

And finally, and perhaps I'm reaching here, the President has an eye toward the future... 2016. We know that he is a forward thinking and strategic guy. Let's assume he wins re-election. I don't think anybody sees Joe Biden, who will by then be 74 as a future President. The Democrats have four years to find and develop a rising star. Who is on the horizon now? I would have to say that on November 7 Hillary would be the odds-on favorite to be the next nominee. She'll likely step down after this term and that will give her four years to catch up on her rest, make another fortune on the private side, burnish her reputation further with Bill's Foundation, and raise a war chest for the election.

She would seem nearly unbeatable. Even now she is one of the few Democrats who seems unassailable. Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachmann are able to reference her admirably and get applause. They see it as a dig at the President, but he has the last laugh. After they mixed it up, he chose her for the biggest job she's ever had. And he did her the greatest favor imaginable. Rather than spending the last four years in the morass of the Senate, she has been out getting things done in a place where Republicans can't obstruct her.

So why reference her as a former rival? To remind the world that Hillary is her own person, her own brand. In four years, if the Obama administration is viewed as a success, she will be seen as one of its brightest stars. If the administration has mixed reviews or is starting to wear out it's welcome, she can still run as her own woman.

I think referencing her that way was a brilliant touch.

The "chessmaster, or pawn?" / "brilliant scheme, or blunder?" debate about Obama's performance is one I examined at length last year, and that is also the substance of a forthcoming long story in the magazine. For now I'll just say that while the reader's interpretation may be a little rococo and triple-backflip-ish for purposes of plausibility, it would be nice to believe that it's correct. Today I will.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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