Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images
The Unsentimental Strategy Behind Obama and Hillary's Marriage of Convenience
Harder Choices

The Unsentimental Strategy Behind Obama and Hillary's Marriage of Convenience

By Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

So far, we know that Hillary Clinton’s new book, Hard Choices, catalogues the following disagreements with her former boss, Barack Obama: She favored arming and training moderate Syrian rebels, keeping Hosni Mubarak in power longer, taking a tougher line with Vladimir Putin, and easing the economic embargo on Cuba. And all this comes before the book is even officially out tomorrow.

In the history of presidential politics, it’s taken far less to prompt feuding between torch-passer and presumed recipient. (See, for example, that other politician named Clinton and his heir apparent.) Surely the White House is flipping out over these politically-convenient revelations.

Actually, no. “I’m sure they’re trying to stay on top of what’s in there,” says a senior Obama campaign adviser from 2008 and 2012. “I’m sure there’s dialogue going on.” But the adviser discerns no particular “freak-out,” which certainly isn’t visible from the outside either.

What explains the apparent calm? The most obvious answer is the unspoken pact between Hillary’s world and Obama’s: For Clinton, the pact means she gets the Obama donors and operatives who helped derail her first presidential run (and, more importantly, she denies their services to any potential challenger). In return, Obama ends up with the Democratic nominee best able to make sure his accomplishments outlive his administration. As a senior White House aide from Obama’s first term told me, “I think it’s a good thing that she’s the odds on favorite to be president next. … If it weren’t for her, I’d be worried about Obama’s legacy, Obamacare, all those things.” Neither side has an interest in violating the terms of this win-win deal with more than two years left on the clock.

But, of course, the elemental forces of presidential politics have a way of undermining such arrangements even if no one is trying to defect. And, at first glance, the Clinton book looks like it may have unleashed these forces. After all, at some point between now and 2016, it will be in Hillary’s interest to differentiate herself from the current administration so as to avoid the drag that an almost lame-duck president inflicts. And it will be in Obama’s interest to resist that differentiation, lest members of his own party prematurely decide that Hillary is their de facto leader. (Imagine members of Congress calling Hillary rather than the White House for direction in 2015 and you begin to see the downsides for Obama.) It wouldn’t be hard to read Clinton’s book as an early push in this inevitable shoving match.

But it turns out that there are powerful reasons for the two camps to stick to the arrangement for as long as possible, even through what would appear to be a provocation as serious as the Clinton book. For Hillary, no political persona has been more rewarding than her team-player persona. Her approval rating jumped 10 points when she agreed to become secretary of state in 2008, the significance of which was not lost on her advisers. As Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes report in their book HRC, sublimating her political ambitions to the Obama agenda was one of her team’s key self-imposed imperatives during her tenure as secretary. “The second she becomes political and partisan,” a Clinton campaign adviser told Allen and Parnes, “she becomes a little bit more radioactive.” 

And so even as Clinton’s book lays out a variety of dissents she will no doubt invoke when taking flak from Jeb Bush, for the moment she’s still far more interested in bucking up Obama than in distancing herself. Look no further than her emphatic comments on the release of Afghanistan POW Bowe Bergdahl. (“It doesn’t matter” how he was captured, she told ABC’s Diane Sawyer, “we bring our people home.”) The stand seemed to signal her posture of choice during the forthcoming book tour, and it was certainly welcome in the White House.

As for the president, as annoying as it must be to have the most popular Democrat in the country distance herself from his foreign-policy B-sides, the broader arrangement still beats any plausible alternative. Consider: If not for the way Hillary’s proto-campaign has frozen the Democratic presidential field, there would already be half-a-dozen Democratic governors and senators trooping through Iowa, complaining to anyone who will listen that Obama still hasn’t closed Guantanamo, arrested any Wall Street bankers, or brought the NSA to heel. “Put aside that she may or may not share all his positions,” says the Obama campaign adviser. “The fact that no one is doing that is a great thing for him.”

As long as Hillary’s 2016 plans continue to bring such benefits, the White House will happily ignore a book that would have the whiff of betrayal under any other circumstances. Like all great marriages of convenience, this one is built to withstand a little emotional distress. 

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