Although we’re all still sort of pretending that it remains to be seen whether Hillary Clinton will run for president in 2016, she recently gave the most definitive confirmation she has to date of her impending candidacy. No, she didn’t say the words “I’m running for president,” but she publicly criticized President Barack Obama, and it’s been seen by political observers as proof that she’s trying to preserve her own political legacy, potentially at the expense of his.
The move won her plaudits in some corners, but the media firestorm it created was a stark reminder that if Clinton runs in 2016—and specifically runs away from Obama’s record—history could repeat itself. And that would be bad news for her and those hoping to see her make history.
In a recent interview with The Atlantic, Clinton criticized the Obama administration’s Middle East policy, saying, with regard to Syria: “The failure to help build up a credible fighting force of the people who were the originators of the protests against Assad—there were Islamists, there were secularists, there was everything in the middle—the failure to do that left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled.” And her line, “Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle,” was widely perceived as a subtle dis of the administration’s overall foreign policy.
The comments have dominated the news for days and have resulted in Obama’s former adviser, David Axelrod, responding with a not-so-subtle dis of his own 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.”
As a testament to how seriously the Clinton camp took the backlash, on Tuesday Clinton’s spokesman said, “Like any two friends who have to deal with the public eye, she looks forward to hugging it out when they see each other tomorrow night.” And on Wednesday, Clinton and Obama apparently did, connecting at a private party on Martha’s Vineyard.
But while many conservatives and some members of the media framed the flap as damaging the Obama brand, those of us looking ahead to 2016, who remember 2000, see greater potential for damaging Clinton.
When Al Gore lost the 2000 presidential election, there was plenty of finger-pointing. Some blamed the Electoral College—Gore lost, you’ll recall, even though he won the popular vote. Others blamed the Supreme Court—which decided disputed election results in favor of George W. Bush.
But others placed the blame squarely at Gore’s own feet after reports that he consciously distanced himself from President Bill Clinton on the campaign trail, believing Clinton to be damaged goods because of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. And while it may be up for debate whether Gore’s loss was really fair and square, what’s not debatable is that he lost states Clinton had previously won—and which would have put Gore over the top—including Arkansas, Tennessee and Missouri.
There certainly were Americans appalled by the Lewinsky affair, but many of them weren’t Clinton-Gore voters to begin with. So it’s quite possible that Gore may have sacrificed motivating some of the voters—who could have been mobilized by Clinton on the campaign trail—in an effort to win over voters he had very little chance of convincing. Hillary Clinton could wind up doing the same if she criticizes Obama too much, just for the sake of political expediency.
Say what you will about Bill Clinton, but most agree he is a gifted campaigner. Al Gore is not. Neither is Hillary Clinton. This means that for all the talk about Hillary Clinton’s perceived inevitability at shattering America’s highest glass ceiling, the 2016 election won’t be a cakewalk for her. She won’t easily inspire voters the way her husband once did or the way Obama has.
And while race is certainly not the only reason black voters supported Obama, it should be noted that the enthusiasm he engendered among black voters at the polls broke records. In 2012, for the first time in history, black voters became the best-represented demographic group at the polls.
To win the White House, Clinton needs the support of black voters, many of whom are still smarting over the racial politics she and her husband were perceived to have played during her efforts to defeat then-Sen. Obama in the 2008 Democratic primary. So “hugging it out” with Obama is a smart move not only to preserve her personal relationship with the president but to preserve her political future, too.
Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.