As Vice President Joe Biden inches closer to a presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton has belatedly done something bold, at least by her campaign’s standards. She’s beginning to distance herself ever-so-slightly from President Obama’s record, particularly on foreign policy, tilting to the center even as she’s facing an increasingly serious challenge from the left in Bernie Sanders.
On Sunday, she gave her strongest televised interview in many months (on CBS’s Face the Nation), where she showcased her national security expertise, gave George W. Bush credit for keeping the country safe after 9/11, and implicitly challenged the record of the Obama administration on international affairs. This centrist version of Clinton characterized the administration’s plan training opposition forces in Syria as a “failure.” And in talking about the need for the United States to take in Syrian refugees, she called on the United States to “lead the world”—a jab, perhaps, at critics’ belief that the president is leading from behind.
It’s clear that foreign policy is Obama’s biggest political weakness, and that his potential Democratic successors need to decide whether they’ll defend his record, or keep some necessary distance to prevail in a general election. Even as the economy slowly improves and the unemployment rate drops, the president’s overall approval numbers have been stagnant, thanks to growing anxiety over the threat of terrorism. He struck a nuclear deal with Iran that can barely win one-fifth of the public’s support (per the Pew Research Center) and badly divided his own party. And in an audacious example of avoiding responsibility, his administration is now blaming its critics for its failure to aid Syrian opposition forces to take on ISIS. Those critics include Clinton, who’s taking some friendly fire from a White House looking to protect its legacy.
Clinton isn’t hesitating to fire back. In a speech this month backing Obama’s deal with Iran, she stressed that the United States “will not hesitate” to use military force if Iran violates the agreement—a rhetorical departure from the president’s diplomacy-at-all-costs approach. She stressed the special bond between the United States and Israel throughout her speech, at a time when the relationship between the two allies is near all-time lows. After the prepared remarks, she argued that she wanted to take a harder line than Obama against Russia after their invasion of Ukraine.
Her recent comments are more reminiscent of the interview she gave last August to The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, where she articulated a more hawkish foreign policy at odds with the president’s. (In that interview, she attributed the rise of ISIS to the administration’s inaction in Syria and harshly declared the administration’s mantra of ‘don’t do stupid stuff’ was not an organizing principle of foreign policy.) But most of that distance dissipated when she prepared for her campaign, which is staffed with many former Obama strategists counseling her not to alienate the liberal base by straying from the president’s bottom line.
What’s different now is that Clinton is facing the threat of serious two-front competition: Sanders is running a surprisingly tough campaign from her left, and the vice president is well-positioned to steal establishment support. If he runs, Biden could make the credible case that he’s a more logical choice to continue Obama’s policies since he’s loyally backed the president throughout his administration. Biden, indeed, literally stood alongside the president as he announced the completion of the Iran nuclear deal. Meanwhile, Sanders is expected to capture support from the most passionate “antiwar” elements of the party, who still look at Clinton’s (and Biden’s) vote authorizing the Iraq war as a disqualifying factor in a primary.
Under these changed circumstances, the most sensible political play is for Clinton to underscore her foreign policy differences with the two by running to the center. Attack Biden for reportedly being uneasy about the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. Capitalize on the uneasiness among the 60 percent of Democratic voters who are skeptical that Iran will comply with the nuclear deal. Underscore your commander-in-chief credibility by outlining knowledge about the world’s hot spots, demonstrating a willingness to take more aggressive action against the Islamic State, challenging the Chinese government for its damaging hacks, and coming up with a plan to counter an increasingly belligerent Russia.
Clinton is beginning to do that, even as she risks the wrath of the White House in the process. It won’t play well with the progressive base, but she’s already losing many of those voters to Sanders. It opens up a line of attack against Biden. And it would position her to be in stronger shape as the Democratic nominee, advancing the argument that she’s always had a different worldview than the president’s. That’s was once Clinton’s strength: She’d been one of the few Democrats with an independent enough brand to win over a slice of Obama critics. That’s clearly not the case anymore, and she’ll need to turn her dismal image around somewhere to win the White House. Foreign policy is a logical starting point.
As the cliché goes in football, the “prevent defense”—designed when a team is merely content to hang onto a big lead—only prevents teams from winning. Without any competition, Clinton has looked entitled, unprepared and unfocused on the campaign trail. Clinton should welcome a Biden campaign, which should force her to distinguish her record and beliefs against intraparty opposition—even if it means she’d be taking her old boss on in the process.