They’ve never been particularly close: He described her as “likeable enough” during their clash over the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination and she distanced herself from his policy in Syria after serving as his Secretary of State for four years.
But as Hillary Rodham Clinton desperately struggles to eke out a victory over Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont in next week’s critical Iowa caucuses, she and President Obama are behaving like political soul mates with a lot riding on each other.
After nearly a year of uneasy tensions between Clinton and Obama, the two are treating each other like long lost friends and the keys to their respective political vindication and victory.
During Monday night’s Democratic presidential town hall in Iowa, Clinton gushed about the high praise she received from Obama in an interview in Politico where the president described her as “wicked smart” and knowledgeable about every policy “inside and out.”
“I was really touched and gratified when I saw that,” she told CNN moderator Chris Cuomo. “People here in Iowa remember we ran a really hard race against each other and then I had the opportunity when he asked me to serve as his Secretary of State. Not only was it a great working relationship, but it turned into a real friendship.”
Frustrated by her inability to match Sanders in excitement and appeal to young people and the far left, Clinton has begun to embrace Obama’s policies and record. And instead of promising to chart a whole new course and revolutionize Washington – as Sanders is doing – Clinton virtually promises to build on the president’s successes with the economy, health care and assisting the middle class.
“I understand that you get into the arena and you are going to get pummeled and pushed and criticized,” she said last night. “I wouldn’t be doing it if I didn’t think it was absolutely necessary to build on the progress that we made under President Obama under great odds …. We’ve got to do everything we possibly can not to let the Republicans rip away the progress and turn us backwards.”
As she has gone from the presumptive Democratic nominee to just one of two major contenders, Clinton has presented herself as the proud heir to Obama’s legacy. During the Democratic presidential debate a week ago, she praised the Affordable Care Act, reminded voters of her four years of service to the president, and sharply criticized Sanders for belittling the president by suggesting he was too cozy with Wall Street – the same criticism he has leveled against Clinton.
“President Obama has led our country out of the Great Recession,” she said. “I’m going to defend President Obama for taking on Wall Street, taking on the financial industry and getting results.”
For his part, Obama has a lot riding on Clinton as well.
Fearing that a victory by Donald Trump or some other Republican presidential aspirant would lead to the unraveling of his greatest achievements – including Obamacare, the Iranian nuclear deal and the Pacific Rim trade deal – he sees Clinton’s victory in 2016 as paramount to preserving his legacy.
That may help to explain Obama’s unusually solicitous comments about Clinton and the way she has been mistreated by her rivals. He told Glenn Thrush of Politico in a 40-minute interview published on Monday that Clinton was being subjected to “unfair scrutiny” by the Republicans and her other critics. Left unsaid, of course, is that much of that scrutiny relates to Clinton’s mishandling of sensitive emails while she was Secretary of State and accepting large contributions and speaking fees from Wall Street bankers and other special interests.
The typically cool-headed, “No Drama Obama” also admitted that he now regrets his own campaign’s rough treatment of Clinton during the 2008 primary campaign – when the former Illinois senator practically came out of nowhere to topple her in the Iowa caucuses and then went on to be elected the first African-American president in U.S. history.
The president said in the interview that Clinton “had a tougher job throughout that primary than I did,” and argued that she now has a better understanding of the demands of the presidency than any other politician does on the scene today.
And while he didn’t utter a disparaging word about Sanders, he strongly disputed the notion that Sanders’s candidacy reminded him of himself eight years ago.
“Bernie came in with the luxury of being a complete long shot and just letting loose,” Obama said during the interview in the Oval Office. “I think Hillary came in with the both privilege – and burden – of being perceived as the frontrunner . . . You’re always looking at the bright, shiny object that people haven’t seen before – That’s a disadvantage to her.”
Last night, Sanders’ senior aides dismissed speculation that Obama was choosing sides in the Democratic contest. And Sanders sought to curry favor with the president, even though he disagrees that Clinton is better prepared to become commander in chief than he is.
“President Obama is obviously right,” Sanders said early in the town hall meeting. “Being President is an enormously difficult job – a job that entails dealing with a million different issues. I think I have the background, I think I have the judgment to do that.”