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. A Clinton spokesman said yesterday the two would be “hugging it out” at a party on Martha’s Vineyard tonight, three days after the former secretary of state was quoted criticizing Obama’s “don’t do stupid stuff” foreign policy mantra.
White House Deputy Press Secretary Eric Schultz told reporters on the island today that Obama and Clinton have a “close and resilient” relationship. Schultz declined to say how the president reacted when informed of her remarks; Clinton later called Obama to smooth things over.
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 and Clinton lays the groundwork for her political future.
“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,” said Julian Zelizer, a Princeton University professor of history and public affairs.
The tension between them 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. In 1912, a fight over the presidential nomination tore apart former allies Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft.
The genesis of the conflict is twofold: Obama’s poor poll ratings and Clinton’s 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 a 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.
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.
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