President Obama and Hillary Clinton have begun a delicate dance to 2016.
As the former Secretary of State edges toward a presidential run, she is putting some daylight between herself and the man she would succeed, on issues ranging from the release of Bowe Bergdahl to the civil war in Syria.
In Clinton’s new book Hard Choices, to be released Tuesday, she says she disagreed with Obama on Syria and advocated in vain for the arming of rebels fighting the forces of President Bashar Assad.
Adding to the intrigue, Obama and Clinton had lunch at the White House two days before the Taliban handed Bergdahl over, a meeting that did not appear on the president’s official schedule.
Once rivals, Obama and Clinton both profess that they are now strong allies — the president referred to her recently as a “really, really good” friend.
Yet already, they are sometimes at cross-purposes, with Obama’s team guarding his legacy, even as he struggles with low approval ratings, and Clinton’s team readying for a possible White House run in which she would inevitably have to distance her political brand from that of her old boss.
The two camps have the power to inflict damage on one another, and Clinton, Obama and their loyalists will have to work carefully to prevent old wounds from reopening.
The release of Hard Choices presents an opportunity to show how far they’ve come.
By common consent, the enmity in the wake of the 2008 primary was felt more acutely by the respective staffs than by the candidates.
Now, the leading liberal super-PAC that supported Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign, Priorities USA Action, has been retooled as a pro-Hillary vehicle with Jim Messina, who managed Obama’s 2012 bid, serving as co-chairman. Other Obama loyalists, such as field directors Jeremy Bird and Mitch Stewart, are working with the Ready for Hillary super-PAC.
Another core Obama player, Tommy Vietor, who bashed the Clinton camp in the 2008 primary and went on to serve as an assistant press secretary at the White House, is working directly on Clinton’s publicity campaign for her book.
Team Clinton reached out to Vietor a few weeks ago to see if he would offer his assistance for one month, as the former secretary of State crisscrosses the country to promote her book. In addition to handling reporters’ queries, last week, he was among the aides who sat with Clinton at her home for an interview with ABC’s Diane Sawyer.
“It’s a reminder that there’s not an Obama team and a Clinton team anymore,” Vietor told The Hill. “The primary was a long time ago.”
Philippe Reines, a longtime top adviser to Clinton, said of Vietor’s involvement, “The communications between us all — during State and since — was and is so regular that it couldn’t be less remarkable. So we didn’t need Tommy as a bridge. We wanted Tommy because he knows the foreign policy record of the last five years as well as any other human being.”
The Clinton team also has tight relationships with several people inside the West Wing.
The working relationship between White House chief of staff Denis McDonough and Clinton’s longtime chief of staff, Cheryl Mills, was prickly at the start of the administration but is now close. During Clinton’s tenure at State, the two aides were known to meet for breakfast on Saturday mornings to discuss looming issues.
Mills and Reines, in turn, each have close relationships with John Podesta, a veteran of Bill Clinton’s White House who is now a special adviser to Obama.
Another top insider is Jake Sullivan, Vice President Biden’s national security adviser who served as Clinton’s director of policy planning and deputy chief of staff during her tenure at the State Department.
This web of connections, and the professions of warmth from Obama and Clinton themselves, allows supporters to proclaim that all is rosy.
“Their relationship is solid,” said one Democratic strategist familiar with both sides, adding, “No cracks whatsoever. Zero.”
But, more than ever the two sides — and the Democrats who float between the two worlds — are being forced to explain how their policies intersect. A group of Democrats met recently at the White House with communications director Jen Palmieri and Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser for strategic communication, recently to discuss issues including foreign policy.
While Hard Choices wasn't a planned topic of discussion, the group briefly discussed matters and decided that there shouldn't be any distance between Obama and Clinton on matters of foreign policy.
Still, those proclamations of a harmonious relationship, or a claim such as Vietor’s that “the president’s record on foreign policy and the secretary’s record on foreign policy are the same” gloss over some obvious tensions.
Back in March, Clinton declared herself “personally skeptical” about a final nuclear deal with Iran, arguing that the odds of reaching a final deal were “not good.” The precise outcome about which she was expressing doubt is the end-goal upon which Obama’s approach is predicated.
On the Bergdahl controversy, Team Clinton directed reporters toward remarks she made in a speech at Denver as supposed evidence of her backing of Obama’s position. But, in fact, those comments included abundant wiggle room.
“The government of Qatar has made representations, even guarantees, that these five Taliban prisoners from Guantanamo will not be let out of Qatar,” she said. “And I certainly hope they follow through on the assurances that they’ve provided.”
Such statements are yet more evidence of the tricky balancing act that Clinton must execute, a dilemma that is likely to become only more acute as 2016 draws near.
“It’s difficult because the secretary of State role that she had is going to be an essential part of what she sells to voters,” said Princeton public affairs professor Julian Zelizer. “On the other hand, she wants to say, ‘Some things in the administration, at least since I left, are not going so well.’ You can’t easily take credit and say ‘except for a few things’. But that’s what she has to do.”
Republican strategist Ron Bonjean said Clinton’s role serving Obama could ultimately be a liability.
“Foreign policy is a weak spot for Obama and Hillary Clinton is getting roped into it because of her term as Secretary of State,” he said. “The closer she moves to a presidential run, the more she has to figure out how to distance herself.”
Democratic strategist Chris Lehane, however, argued that Clinton has one advantage over heirs apparent during previous administrations, such as his old boss, Al Gore.
Referring to Gore’s run in 2000, while serving as Bill Clinton’s vice president, Lehane noted, “We knew we had to demonstrate that he was more than a Number Two. I think what’s different [for Hillary Clinton] is that she is famous, well-known, well-established. The tension where a vice president feels a compelling need to go out and assert themselves doesn’t exist in that way.”
Still, even if Clinton is already in a singular position, some argue that her desire to reinforce her distinct political position is plenty strong.
“I think she values being at arm’s length,” said one Democratic strategist.