Edging right, Clinton seeks distance from Obama on ISIS

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Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonClinton, Kaine blast GOP convention Hillary Clinton closes DNC with message of inclusion Clinton to hit Trump over outsourcing on Rust Belt bus tour MORE is putting space between herself and President Obama on the issues of national security and terrorism, even at the risk of offending the most dovish members of her own party.

Clinton said during a major speech last week that the United States should go aggressively after the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) to “break the group’s momentum and then its back.” She also said that no-fly zones should be imposed over some parts of Syria — a step that the Obama administration has declined to take — and suggested that some ground forces would be necessary. 

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On the final point, Clinton was careful to note that, “Like President Obama, I do not believe that we should again have 100,000 American troops in combat in the Middle East. That is just not the smart move to make here.” But she added that U.S. forces should be utilized to “support local and regional ground forces in carrying out this mission.”

Clinton drew an even sharper contrast with Obama at the second Democratic presidential debate, declaring that ISIS “cannot be contained, it must be defeated.”

Obama has received considerable criticism for saying that ISIS was “contained” the day before the attacks on Paris that killed 130 people. Aides emphasized he had been using the word to describe the organization’s control of territory, rather than suggesting the threat had been neutralized.

Still, the president’s poll ratings reveal considerable public dissatisfaction with his approach. In an ABC News/Washington Post poll conducted between Nov. 16 and Nov. 19, adults nationwide were asked whether they approved of Obama’s handling of the threat of terrorism. 

Only 40 percent expressed approval, whereas 54 percent disapproved, by some distance the worst result Obama had received in that poll going back to 2009. The same poll offered up an even worse rating when respondents were asked about ISIS specifically: 35 percent approved and 57 percent disapproved of the president’s performance. 

Those kinds of ratings give plenty of reason for Clinton to adopt a tougher line. 

“There is no question that she is going back to the Hillary Clinton of old,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a New York-based Democratic strategist who has worked with Clinton in the past but is not doing so in this campaign.  

“The politics are less complicated. In order to win back the center she has to be seen as significantly more hawkish. Look at the data every day — it is no longer only Republicans who hold [Obama] in less than high esteem on national security.” 

Sheinkopf suggested that the advantages to Clinton of adopting a more aggressive posture on national security and ISIS more than outweighed any drawbacks when it came alienating progressives.

Back in 2008, liberals held Clinton’s Senate vote to authorize the use of force in Iraq against her during her primary struggle with Obama, then an Illinois senator. 

“The skepticism from 2008 doesn’t matter anymore because there are daily murders in Israel, and murders in Mali and murders in Nigeria and murders in Paris,” he said. “That all changes the equation.” 

Cal Jillson, a professor of political science at Southern Methodist University, said there’s a clear rationale behind Clinton’s most recent pronouncements. 

“She can [position] herself against both [Bernie] Sanders and Obama — although gingerly in regard to Obama, because he's skeptically admired about his Middle East strategy," Jillson said.

"I think she believes, rightly, it's where Democrats need to be because Republicans can't be unchallenged on the fact that they're the party of national security.”

In the eyes of some observers, however, Clinton is also cautiously edging toward the center on issues beyond national security. 

On Sunday, she outlined a plan to help middle class Americans via the use of tax credits  — one of her favorite policy tools. She was criticized by the campaign of her main left-wing rival, Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersDem anxiety hangs over Clinton Sanders consultants join up with Wasserman Schultz’s primary opponent The Hill's 12:30 Report MORE (I-Vt.) for being too modest, with one of his aides describing the plan as “Republican-lite.” 

Michael Briggs, a Sanders spokesman, insisted in a statement that, “given the disappearing middle class and massive income wealth inequality in America today, we clearly have to go a lot further than what Secretary Clinton proposes.”

The question of how effective those attacks will be is debatable, especially since Clinton’s proposed scheme was intended to ease the financial burden on people serving as caregivers for elderly relatives.  

But, coupled with her anti-terror rhetoric, such moves could be seen as Clinton reminding the broader electorate of her centrist instincts — and offering a contrast to her recent shifts to the left in opposing the Keystone XL pipeline and the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement.

"She's walking and chewing gum at the same time," said one longtime ally. "It would be foolish if she was solely focused on just the primaries, because all systems indicate a go for the general [election].”

"She hasn't won any primaries yet and she still has Sanders pushing hard from the left," said Democratic strategist Jim Manley, who served as a spokesman for then-Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry ReidReid: Congress should return 'immediately' to fight Zika Classified briefings to begin for Clinton, Trump The Trail 2016: Her big night MORE (D-Nev.). 

"I think that she will continue to focus on the liberal base while trying to find ways to make inroads with the general election voters as well."