By Justin Sink - 07/30/13 12:28 AM EDT
President Obama’s private lunch with Hillary Clinton on Monday afternoon suggested that she is taking another step toward launching a 2016 run for the White House.
Few details were released about the meeting, which was held on a patio just outside the Oval Office. A photo of the lunch released by the White House shows the former rivals smiling with nary a hint of the animosity that marked the 2008 Democratic primary. White House aides pointed out that Obama extended the lunch invitation to Clinton.
Six months after leaving her post at the State Department, Clinton is dominating potential presidential candidates in polls on the 2016 Democratic field, including Vice President Biden.
Eyeing congressional gains in three years, Democrats on Capitol Hill have been encouraging her to enter the race.
Last week, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) suggested she would be a better president than her husband. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in May said she prays Clinton will run.
There is a tremendous buzz around the 65-year-old ex-senator.
Clinton recently joined Twitter, where she has more than 651,000 followers. She is working on a memoir that is expected to be released next year.
On Monday, a relatively slow news day, reporters grilled White House spokesman Josh Earnest about the Obama-Clinton lunch, which featured grilled chicken, pasta jambalaya and salad.
“Secretary Clinton and the president have developed not just a strong working relationship, but also a genuine friendship,” Earnest said. “And so it’s largely friendship that’s on the agenda for the lunch today. So it’s not a working lunch, as much as it is an opportunity for the two who saw each other on a pretty frequent basis over the course of the last four years to get a chance to catch up.”
Still, Democratic strategists and political scientists say it’s nearly impossible the meeting didn’t carry some political overtones.
“Both of them know the importance of 2016 to the Democratic Party,” said Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University. “For the president, if he’s followed by a member of his own party, his legacy is enhanced. If he is followed by a member of the opposition party, his legacy is eviscerated, so he has much interest in how it will play out.”
Biden, who hasn’t ruled out a bid to succeed Obama, is scheduled to have breakfast with Clinton on Tuesday.
Should both Biden and Clinton run, Obama would be pressed whether he supports his sitting vice president or his former secretary of State. Many believe he won’t endorse any candidate in the primary.
“In terms of whether or not he’ll weigh in on 2016, [it’s] far too early to tell,” Earnest told reporters.
Clinton is likely looking to learn lessons from her first bid for the White House. Her 2008 campaign largely relied on traditional fundraising and campaign strategies. She repeatedly highlighted her “35 years of experience” at a time when many voters were put off by the decisions of then-President George W. Bush’s experienced team.
Obama strategically outmaneuvered her and overcame Clinton’s large polling lead. Back then, Obama was viewed as more likable. Now, Clinton’s approval ratings are higher than his.
It’s too early to ask, but Clinton surely wants access to the president’s fundraising and massive email lists.
“She doesn’t want to run against the Obama organization,” Democratic strategist Tad Devine said. “Once was enough.”
“His campaign was probably the decisive factor in his winning the nomination, winning the general election, and then turning back a challenge from Mitt Romney. It’s a proven campaign organization with people, with fundraisers, with new technology they’re pioneering, and she certainly wants to plug into that.”
The political action committee supporting a potential Clinton campaign in 2016 has already telegraphed the intention to lean on the campaign talent nurtured by the president, hiring Jeremy Bird, Obama’s national field director, and Mitch Stewart, who oversaw the president’s swing-state operation, earlier this month.
“She will seek the kind of advice people ask Bill Clinton all the time: ‘What’d you do, and how’d you do it?’” Princeton political scientist Julian Zelizer said.
Still, Jillson says “the buttering up will be going both ways.”
Obama knows that the surest way to cement his legacy is to hand control of the White House to another Democrat. But were a Republican to prevail in 2016, his top legislative priorities — including, most significantly, ObamaCare — would be threatened.
“Democrats see it like Medicare — if it gets entrenched, you’ll never get rid of it,” Devine said. “It undoubtedly will be strengthened by someone who has proven her commitment to it as a first lady. She will figure out how to make it stronger politically, more palatable to more people.”
The White House sought to downplay suggestions the Monday meeting had such overt political overtones.
“2016, despite the intense media interest, is something that is still quite a ways away,” Earnest said.
It is likely that Obama aides will continue to be cagey about 2016 speculation, especially because of Biden, who had to deal with questions about whether Clinton was going to replace him on the 2012 ticket.
Biden has been a major asset for Obama. Unlike the president, Biden enjoys negotiating deals with Congress and is trusted by Republicans, most notably Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.).
“Obama has been well served by Biden, and he’s the obvious alternative that would make any conversation today preliminary,” Jillson said. “I would be surprised if he contests for the nomination with Clinton, but you can’t rule it out. And because you can’t rule it out, Obama has to be careful in his thinking and his preparation.”
Earnest stressed that while lunch with Clinton was a special occasion, Obama and Biden dine together weekly and will continue to do so.