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.

National Journal

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 conventional 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 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."

The public is of two minds about Obama. They agree with his America-first, don't-rush-to-war philosophy; they just don't like how he's projecting it. He dithers and waffles, and seems to be a mental step behind adversaries like Russian President Vladmir Putin.

If I'm reading the public correctly, Americans aren't clamoring for a muscular and old-fashioned hawk as much as they want a pragmatic leader, somebody they feel they can be proud of, who puts them first and keeps them safe. They want what Obama promised to be.

Clinton may be aiming for that sweet spot between Bush's belligerence and Obama's neglect — what Karl Rove called the "Goldilocks of foreign policy." But I could think of safer, more calculated ways of going about it than stiff-arming the Democratic base and beating war drums over Syria.

In her memoir, Hard Choices, Clinton apologized for her support of the Iraq War, but she has made no secret of her interventionist streak. She wanted more troops in Afghanistan than Obama, for example, and was not "swept up in the drama and idealism" of the Arab Spring like other, younger White House aides.

Call me naïve, but maybe Clinton is simply being honest. After all, that's really what Americans want in a leader.

UPDATE: Maybe I jumped the gun. After weathering some pushback from the White House, including a snarky tweet by Obama consultant David Axelrod, Clinton released this statement through a spokesman:

"Earlier today, the Secretary called President Obama to make sure he knows that nothing she said was an attempt to attack him, his policies or his leadership. Secretary Clinton has at every step of the way touted the significant achievements of his presidency, which she is honored to have been part of as his secretary of state. While they've had honest differences on some issues, including aspects of the wicked challenge Syria presents, she has explained those differences in her book and at many points since then. Some are now choosing to hype those differences but they do not eclipse their broad agreement on most issues. Like any two friends who have to deal with the public eye, she looks forward to hugging it out when she they see each other tomorrow night."

There are several problems with this statement. First, it's inaccurate. She certainly did criticize his policies, if not his leadership, most directly with the "stupid stuff" formulation. Second, it's borderline demeaning, like a subordinate trying to get back in the boss's good graces. Clinton is an accomplished person who has challenged glass ceilings. She shouldn't have to come even close to apologizing for her opinions. Third, her interview wasn't "hyped," it was covered fairly, and now she's trying to blame the messenger. Finally, it's too cute by half, too Clintonian. It doesn't seem, well, authentic. She's trying to distinguish her policies from Obama's without upsetting all the president's men. She can't have it all.

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