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Is Clinton Distancing Herself From Obama? Maybe Not

Hillary Clinton works a rope line at Intertech Plastics in Denver on Monday.
Brennan Linsley
Hillary Clinton works a rope line at Intertech Plastics in Denver on Monday.

Is Hillary Clinton distancing herself from the Obama administration in preparation for a 2016 presidential run?

Some observers suspect that's exactly what's happening via pieces like one in The Daily Beast based on ex-Obama administration officials telling a journalist that the former secretary of state wanted to drive a tougher bargain in the prisoner exchange that freed Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl than President Obama ultimately got.

Much of the reaction to that story, especially in conservative circles, was that Clinton or her supporters were trying to separate her from a controversial national security and foreign policy issue.

And that was just the latest iteration of such stories. In the weeks and months before the Bergdahl story broke, Clinton's statements were combed for evidence that she was placing daylight between herself and Obama.

For instance, in May, conservative pundit Jonah Goldberg wrote about a speech in which Clinton barely mentioned her time in the Obama administration. Goldberg wrote:

"In her first campaign-style speech on the economy last week at the New America Foundation, Clinton mentioned Obama exactly once. (He's worked hard, she said.) She referenced her husband a half-dozen times and talked at great length about how we need to return to the policies of the 1990s. ... Not only was there precious little talk of Obama, there was precious little talk of her four years on Obama's once-vaunted 'team of rivals.' "

In March, National Journal's Michael Hirsh noticed that Clinton's foreign policy rhetoric had grown significantly tougher than the administration's, especially toward Russia, once she was no longer secretary of state.

"In recent weeks, as the standoff over Ukraine escalated," he wrote, "Hillary Clinton did something that she never did as secretary of State: She put considerable distance between herself and the president she served loyally for four years."

Let's stipulate that if Clinton ultimately decides to run for the presidency, she will likely need a persuasive argument for why she shouldn't be considered the third term of the Obama administration (or the Clinton administration, for that matter).

But it may be somewhat premature and even inaccurate to declare that Clinton is intentionally distancing herself from the Obama administration.

First, there was significant distance between Clinton and Obama from the very start, even before she joined his administration. As a senator, Clinton voted to authorize President George W. Bush's 2003 Iraq invasion. That was the vote that allowed Obama to contrast himself as the anti-war alternative to Clinton, a key to his winning the nomination.

And lest we forget, Clinton repeatedly ridiculed Obama in 2007 and 2008 for what she alleged was his foreign policy naivete, such as during a debate when Obama stated his openness to holding direct talks with the leaders of Iran and North Korea.

Second, if Clinton was indeed taking a harder line on negotiations with the Taliban to free Bergdahl as far back as 2012 as The Daily Beast reports, it would be evidence of real differences between her and other administration officials back then.

William Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who served in the Clinton White House, said he saw very little hard evidence that the former secretary of state was indeed "distancing" herself from the Obama administration's policies. Instead, he said journalists were "connecting various, obscure dots" they could find to fit a conclusion they had already reached.

"To quote my old boss from 30 years ago, 'Where's the beef?' This seems to be a Hamburger Helper story at best," Galston said. (That was a reference to Vice President Walter Mondale's famous line from his unsuccessful 1984 campaign against President Ronald Reagan.)

Galston counseled waiting for Clinton's new memoir, scheduled to be released next week, and the subsequent interviews, in which she will speak "in her own voice" about her foreign policy positions. He added, "She's been her own person for a very long time."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Frank James joined NPR News in April 2009 to launch the blog, "The Two-Way," with co-blogger Mark Memmott.