Clinton-Obama Tension Rises as Political Interests Shift

Aug. 13 (Bloomberg) –– Washington Bureau Chief Jonathan Allen discusses the rift between President Obama and Hillary Clinton regarding her "Stupid Stuff" policy remark. He speaks on “Street Smart.” (Source: Bloomberg)

Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are caught in a rift-and-repair cycle.

Their political camps spar. Then make up. It’s a recurring sequence that won’t end until he leaves the White House or her presidential aspirations come to an end, political experts say.

At the moment, the two are in the making-up stage. Clinton, at a book-signing on Martha’s Vineyard, said she was “looking forward” to seeing him at a party tonight -- three days after her criticism of Obama’s “don’t do stupid stuff” foreign policy mantra was published in The Atlantic.

White House Deputy Press Secretary Eric Schultz told reporters on the island earlier today that Obama and Clinton, his former secretary of State, have a “close and resilient” relationship. Schultz wouldn’t say how the president reacted to her remarks; Clinton later called Obama to smooth things over.

The two sat at the same table at the dinner tonight at a golf club on Martha’s Vineyard where they celebrated the 80th birthday of Ann Jordan, who with her husband Vernon Jordan, is a Democratic donor.

“The president and first lady also were happy to have the chance to spend time with Secretary Clinton and former President Clinton,” the White House said in a statement after the party with about 150 attendees.

Shotgun Wedding

From the time of their shotgun wedding after the 2008 campaign -- Obama vowing to keep his primary adversary close and Clinton promising to serve him loyally as head of his State Department -- they’ve kept the partnership of the two most powerful brands in Democratic politics from tearing asunder.

That will increasingly be a challenge, given their differences in approach and policy and the shifting of their interests from mutual to distinct, as Obama works to burnish his legacy while Clinton lays the groundwork for her political future.

Asked today whether it was a tough decision to call Obama after her comments set off a media firestorm, she said: “No.”

“We agree. We are committed to the values and interests of the security of our country together,” she said. “We have disagreements, as any partners and friends might very well have. But I’m proud that I served with him and for him and I’m looking forward to tonight.”

‘Natural’ Tension

Julian Zelizer, a Princeton University professor of history and public affairs, said that “by putting herself physically in the same place, she obviously amplifies the story of difference but also might be sending a reminder to her party, including the left, that she and Obama are still on the same team or, in this case, on the same island.”

The tension is “natural when a two-term president is coming to an end and a potential candidate needs to distinguish themselves from a predecessor,” Zelizer said.

Similar dynamics were on display when former Vice President Al Gore put distance between his 2000 presidential campaign and his former boss, President Bill Clinton, and they date back in the country’s history.

The great friendship between Republican presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft frayed so badly during Taft’s first term in office that Roosevelt, who had been commander in chief from 1901 to 1909, tried to wrest the party’s nomination away in 1912.

Personal Invective

Roosevelt, who formed the Bull-Moose party after losing the nomination, said Taft had veered away from progressivism and toward the “forces of reaction and political crookedness.” Nothing Obama or Clinton has said about the other since their primary campaign in 2008 approaches that level of personal invective.

The genesis of the Obama-Clinton conflict is twofold: his poor poll ratings and her interest in the presidency. He’s been upside down, with more Americans disapproving than approving of the job he’s doing, for more than a year in Gallup’s daily tracking polls. In surveys taken from Aug. 9 through Aug. 11, he rated a 41 percent approval level, with 55 percent disapproving of his handling of the presidency.

Clinton must show distance from a flagging president while making sure not to alienate the Democratic base that picked him over her in 2008. Her two-months-and-counting book tour, which produced the latest round of recriminations and reconciliation, isn’t helping matters.

Clinton Book

In her memoir, published in June, Clinton writes glowingly of Obama, while making clear exactly how and how often she disagreed with him on foreign policy issues when she was his chief diplomat from 2009 through early 2013.

In one instance, she recounts how Obama overruled her and others in his administration who advocated arming moderate rebels in Syria. While she publicly stood by the president’s decision not to do that, she has said since leaving the State Department that the “failure” to intervene gave space for the Islamic State to rise in Syria and Iraq.

It was a question from Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic about foreign policy that led to Clinton saying “don’t do stupid stuff” is not an “organizing principle” and touching off the back-and-forth with the White House.

Obama’s longtime political adviser, David Axelrod, responded with a Twitter message that alluded to Clinton’s vote to authorize the Iraq War.

The exchanges highlight how a divide in the Democratic Party serves neither Obama nor Clinton.

His poll numbers are propped up by nearly unified support from his partisan allies. Her chances of winning the presidency rely on the goodwill of Obama donors and voters who grew to accept her because she served him loyally.

Neil Levesque, director of the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at St. Anselm College, said “it’s definitely going to get worse” between Clinton and Obama.

“It’s hard to say there’s risk when her numbers are so much better than his,” Levesque said.

To contact the reporters on this story: Jonathan Allen in Washington at; Angela Greiling Keane in Edgartown, Massachusetts at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Steven Komarow at; Jeanne Cummings at Justin Blum

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