Mastering the Bill and Hillary Two-Step

The all-but-declared 2016 candidate must court Obama supporters while keeping her distance from his policies.


Dec. 12, 2013 7:08 p.m. ET
President Obama isn’t the only Democrat who has had a difficult few weeks. The past month has also been particularly challenging for the woman who has all but declared her 2016 presidential campaign: Hillary Clinton. If this winter is any guide, to win the nomination Mrs. Clinton will have to master her two-step: sticking close to a president still beloved by the Democratic base—as she did this week, flying on Air Force One with Mr. Obama to South Africa for Nelson Mandela‘s memorial service—while distancing herself from his unpopular policies.The former secretary of state knows that in order to win the Democratic nomination she must first secure the party’s base—the steadfast liberal voters who deserted her during the 2008 primaries. Mrs. Clinton has already signaled her intention to hew closely to their priorities: In an August speech at the American Bar Association in San Francisco, she advocated for extending the Voting Rights Act, and last month in Los Angeles she spoke to a major gathering of Mexican-Americans about her support for comprehensive immigration reform.

Celebrating the arrival of 2009 in New York’s Times Square. Associated Press

At the same time, Mrs. Clinton must separate herself politically from a president whose approval rating has plummeted (38% in the latest Quinnipiac poll) and whose policies could well wreck her chance to occupy the nation’s highest office. If she fails to do this, Mrs. Clinton’s inevitable identification with President Obama threatens to destroy any chance of winning over the critical group of independents that she lost in 2008.

Fortunately for Mrs. Clinton, she’s got Bill. And the former president has already come to the rescue more than once.

Apparently without consulting the White House, President Clinton on Nov. 12 distanced himself and his wife from Mr. Obama’s signature legislation, which remains deeply unpopular. Mr. Clinton told an interviewer that he favored amending the Affordable Care Act to allow people to keep health-care plans that the law was forcing them to surrender. Calling on Mr. Obama to “honor the commitment the federal government made to those people and let them keep what they got,” Mr. Clinton made it clear that the health-care law had to be revamped in order to survive politically.

The move accomplished two things. First, it provided political cover to the 39 House Democrats who voted for Rep. Fred Upton’s legislation allowing insurance companies to continue to offer policies that had been canceled because of ObamaCare. Second, by turning around and explicitly endorsing ObamaCare and the president days later in a CNN Espanol interview, Mr. Clinton managed the delicate task of maintaining close ties and clear distance from the administration.

That isn’t to say Mr. Clinton’s intervention will be enough immunize his wife from criticism. Mrs. Clinton’s advocacy for health-care reform in the first years of the Clinton presidency will almost certainly brand her as the “mother of ObamaCare,” notwithstanding that her reforms were more limited than Mr. Obama’s. But the popular perception is that Mrs. Clinton was the first advocate of national health insurance, and in the 2008 primary she, and not Mr. Obama, was the main advocate for the individual mandate.

Another major obstacle is Mrs. Clinton’s foreign-policy record: She can point to no significant accomplishments as secretary of state. Now that her successor, John Kerry, has forged an interim agreement with Iran, good or bad, to limit its nuclear program, questions will inevitably be asked about why Mrs. Clinton failed to achieve anything on that front—or to strike a similar bargain with North Korea or make any progress with the Palestinians and Israelis.

Mrs. Clinton also still faces serious questions about the 2012 terror attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. During the 2008 primary campaign, Mrs. Clinton said she was the candidate best equipped to answer the 3 a.m. emergency phone call. Americans will want to know how she answered that call in Libya.

Notwithstanding these challenges, Mrs. Clinton remains the consensus, odds-on favorite to win the 2016 Democratic nomination. There’s unlikely to be a challenge from the left, since Sen. Elizabeth Warren has taken herself out of the race—at least for the time being.

The general election is another matter. Polling released this week shows Hillary Clinton in a statistical tie with popular New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, and at least one survey shows some erosion in support for Mrs. Clinton. In the latest Quinnipiac poll, Mr. Christie maintains the very slight 1% lead he held in November, with a 42%-41% advantage. In the McClatchy-Marist poll, Mrs. Clinton’s advantage has dropped from 6% in July down a 48%-45% advantage. The polling message is clear: Against a Republican contender with broad popularity and appeal, Mrs. Clinton is vulnerable and would start such a campaign without a clear advantage.

Bill Clinton gets this political landscape. That’s why he has systematically distanced himself, and by extension his wife, from a broad range of Mr. Obama’s policies—not just health care.

Mr. Clinton has positioned the Clinton brand as being more hawkish than the president by advocating for intervention in Syria, despite the low level of public support for such an initiative. At an Institute for International Leadership event in June, Mr. Clinton said: “If you refuse to act and you cause a calamity, the one thing you cannot say when all the eggs have been broken is, ‘Oh my god, two years ago there was a poll that said 80 percent of you were against it.’ You look like a total fool.” Without naming Mr. Obama, Mr. Clinton left no doubt who he meant.

In the run-up to the 2012 presidential election, Bill Clinton said in an interview with Tom Brokaw that Mr. Obama should talk more about balancing the budget and deficit reduction. Mr. Clinton also backed the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles deficit-reduction plan—which was created at Mr. Obama’s behest but which he never implemented.

With the Obama administration’s popularity eroding as the economy remains stagnant and ObamaCare appears likely to remain troubled for months to come, the artful dance the Clintons have begun will only become more elaborate as 2016 approaches.

Mr. Schoen, a political adviser and pollster for President Bill Clinton from 1994-2000, is the author of “The End of Authority: How a Loss of Legitimacy and Broken Trust are Endangering Our Future” (Rowman and Littlefield, 2013).