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Column: Interview Suggests New Obama-Clinton Tensions


FILE - President Barack Obama with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the White House in 2011

FILE - President Barack Obama with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the White House in 2011

It is one of the more complicated and fascinating relationships of the modern political age—President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Once bitter rivals, Clinton was Obama’s surprise pick as his first secretary of state. By all accounts they worked well together. Petty rivalries were mostly swept aside as Clinton travelled the world as the face of a new administration, determined to show the U.S. had turned the page after eight years of the presidency of George W. Bush.

In recent days it appears that the relationship has taken yet another turn. Clinton stepped up criticisms of the president's handling of foreign policy, taken by some as yet another sign of an impending campaign for the White House in 2016.

In an interview with The Atlantic, Clinton seemed to take a shot at what has come to be known as the Obama administration’s shorthand foreign policy mantra: “Don’t do stupid stuff.” Clinton put it this way: “Great nations need organizing principles and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.”

Some of the president’s advisers were not amused. David Axelrod blasted away on Twitter: “Just to clarify, ‘Don’t do stupid stuff means stuff like occupying Iraq in the first place, which was a tragically bad decision.”

All of a sudden, the memories of the Obama-Clinton 2008 battle for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination came back into focus, especially the Obama campaign’s efforts to remind Democrats at every turn that Clinton voted for the Iraq war as a senator from New York.

Calming the Waters

In an effort to tamp things down, Clinton called Obama to assure him that nothing she said was an attempt to “attack him, his policies or his leadership”, according to a statement from a Clinton spokesman.

Clinton detailed in her recent book “Hard Choices” how she and the president differed over arming moderate rebels in Syria. She was in favor, he was opposed. All of that has come back into play as the Obama administration grapples with the growing threat of jihadists in northern Iraq.

No doubt if Hillary Clinton runs for president in 2016, she will have to put some distance between herself and the president, especially if the president remains unpopular. But how she does that, without annoying liberal Democrats who remain loyal to Obama and whose support she will need to win, will be a key test of her political skills.

For Obama, the criticism comes at a bad time politically. He is stuck at some of the lowest poll ratings of his tenure, just a few months before midterm congressional elections will likely determine what kind of presidency he will have in his final two years in office.

In fact, it is Clinton who is likely to be in demand as a Democratic speaker during the upcoming midterm campaign, more so than the president. Clinton is expected to carefully choose where and when to campaign and for whom. The demand for her is likely to outstrip her ability to accommodate all those who would her help.

It will be a different scenario for the president. Many vulnerable Democrats running in Republican-leaning states have already signaled they would prefer he not come on their behalf. And the White House, fully aware of the prospect of losing Democratic control of the Senate, understands and is willing to oblige.

'Undecided' Leads Republican Field for 2016

While the Democratic Party storyline for 2016 is clear at the moment with Clinton as the frontrunner, it is anything but on the Republican side.

A recent Marist poll shows “undecided” is the top choice for Republicans in Iowa with 20 percent and in New Hampshire at 22 percent. After that Rand Paul and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush are tied with 12 percent each in Iowa followed by 2012 vice presidential candidate and Congressman Paul Ryan at 11 percent. In New Hampshire, Rand Paul is at 14 percent support followed by Christie at 13 percent.

Christie has made some early visits to Iowa, which some Republican strategists see as a sign that he believes he remains a viable 2016 option among GOP contenders. That’s important because Christie has been dogged by a scandal that ensnared some of his aides related to lane closings on the George Washington Bridge that caused massive traffic jams last September.

So far Christie has not been personally implicated in the scandal but three investigations are ongoing and many Republicans insiders are reluctant to pronounce Christie in the clear as long as there remains a cloud of the unknown hanging over his head. Christie, however, may be forging ahead regardless. He told Iowa Republicans, “I’ll be back here. I’ll be back here a lot.”

Christie is not alone. Rand Paul, Texas Senator Ted Cruz and Texas Governor Rick Perry have also been making pilgrimages to Iowa with 2016 in mind.

The Marist poll suggests some of the fallout from the bridge scandal may be hurting Christie. He has the highest unfavorable ratings of any of the potential Republican contenders in both Iowa and New Hampshire. Thirty-three percent of Iowa Republicans view him negatively, as do 31 percent of Republicans in New Hampshire.

Christie will have a better read on his presidential possibilities after his visit to Iowa and another upcoming trip to New Hampshire. For many moderate Republicans, a scandal-free Christie represents their best hope of defeating Hillary Clinton or any other Democrat in 2012. Christie’s proven appeal to centrist voters and his ability to project a straight-talking image could be a huge advantage provided he is not directly implicated in the bridge-lane closure scandal.

But that remains a big “if” and the problem for Republican fundraisers and activists who like Christie is it may be a long time before the investigations are concluded and his fate is known.

Other potential contenders dropping by include Florida Senator Marco Rubio, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, still a favorite with conservative Christian voters.

Many of these potential contenders are also visiting New Hampshire and South Carolina, the two other traditional early stops in the Republican primary calendar. But it already appears that Iowa will be a huge first test for what could be a large Republican field early in 2016.

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    Jim Malone

    Jim Malone has served as VOA’s National correspondent covering U.S. elections and politics since 1995. Prior to that he was a VOA congressional correspondent and served as VOA’s East Africa Correspondent from 1986 to 1990. Jim began his VOA career with the English to Africa Service in 1983.

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