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Anybody wondering how Hillary Clinton would distance herself from President Obama in 2016 needs only to parse her post-State of the Union tweet:

The first sentence envelops Obama in an embrace—something her husband often did to his rivals before digging a shiv between their ribs. The next day, she told a Canadian audience that Obama doesn't get the credit he deserves for leading the United States out of recession.

The political media took her at face value—always a risky route with the Clintons. "Hillary hugs Obama—again," declared the NBC political blog First Read. "Clinton [tied] herself to Obama's economic programs," The Washington Post reported.

The second sentence of her tweet is the key—the social-media shiv. "Now we need to step up and deliver for the middle class."

Key word: Deliver.

Friends and associates of the former secretary of State, including some who are preparing her for a likely presidential bid, say Clinton obviously will embrace Obama's progressive economic agenda. Middle-class tax cuts, judicial reform, paid sick leave, and free community-college tuition are the sort of policies that Clinton has previously supported—and would certainly push in the future.

Clinton is not worried about being associated with Obama's policies, associates say. Her challenge is to convince voters that, unlike Obama, she can deliver on her promises.

"He can blame Republicans and all sort of structural problems—and get sympathy from a lot of us," said one associate who spoke on condition of anonymity so that she could channel Clinton's thinking. "But voters don't want to hear that. They want shit done. He hasn't gotten shit done."

The Clinton team is discussing how to draw a contrast between Obama's leadership skills and hers—without overtly insulting the president.

I had coffee recently with an adviser to both Bill and Hillary Clinton. Halfway through an animated conversation about the 2016 presidential campaign, he grabbed my napkin and sketched out how Clinton might contrast herself to Obama. He wrote:  

Consensus builder > Loner

Plodder > Celebrity

Listener > Lecturer

Doer > Talker

Interesting stuff. But this person was not able to tell me exactly how Clinton would align herself with the can-do attributes on the left side of is list—except to say "she has a biography and a background that lends itself to the case." Sensitive to the growing influence of the Democratic Party's extreme liberal wing, this adviser said the differences between Clinton and Obama are far less ideological than they are a matter of personality, experience, and leadership qualities.

Yet another Clinton associate, a longtime friend, said the former secretary of State doesn't want to be the "third president of polarization."

Each of the officials said this line of thought precedes Obama's rise in the polls; if his popularity continues to climb and sustains itself, she obviously would be less inclined to distance herself. That's not likely to happen; historically, two-term presidents leave behind weary voters—and would-be successors tripping over the sitting president's shadow.

In her Winnipeg address, Clinton called Obama's economic proposals "an important start for a critical debate." That signals the obvious fact that the generational challenges of income inequality, wage stagnation, and declining social mobility will outlast Obama. But there's more to her thinking.

Clinton also believes that voters want the next president to get beyond "a critical debate" and forge actual solutions. They want somebody to step up and deliver.

This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.

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