How ironic it is that after busting Barack Obama so feverishly during the long ’08 primary season, Hillary Clinton is now bro-hugging the guy so ardently.
But such are the exigencies of politics, where foes can morph into bedfellows. It’s been eight years since she assailed Obama, in her famous “3 a.m.” TV ad, as an untested naif. Now she needs to extol him, to use him as a protective shield, for reasons I’ll shortly explain. And last night, while again debating Bernie Sanders, she played the president card at every turn. It wasn’t exactly a master class in Rubio robotics, but, OK, we got the message:
“I am a staunch supporter of President Obama’s principal accomplishment — namely the Affordable Care Act …. I think under President Obama we have seen a lot of advances …. I think President Obama has set a great example. I think he has addressed a lot of these [racial] issues that have been quite difficult …. I think what President Obama did was to exemplify the importance of [the criminal justice] issue as our first African-American president …. When he won, he turned to me, trusting my judgment, my experience, to become secretary of state ….”
And so on. I counted 20 Obama citations.
Heck, she even invoked Obama to shield herself from the charge that she’s backed by big money. For starters, she said, the independent super PAC that supports her today was originally a super PAC that supported Obama. (She said, “It’s not my PAC.” But, in truth, it’s run by trusted ex-Clinton staffers who don’t need to coordinate with her because they already know what she wants. They’re reportedly spending $4.5 million in critical South Carolina to get out the vote in the black community.)
Then she embraced Obama even tighter:
“I debated then-Senator Obama numerous times on stages like this, and he was the recipient of the largest number of Wall Street donations of anybody running on the Democratic side ever. [But] when it mattered, he stood up and took on Wall Street. He pushed through, and he passed the Dodd-Frank regulation, the toughest regulations since the 1930s. So let’s not in any way imply here that either President Obama or myself, would in any way not take on any vested interest, whether it’s Wall Street, or drug companies, or insurance companies, or frankly, the gun lobby to stand up to do what’s best for the American people.”
Translation: Hey, Bernie, when you attack me on Wall Street money, you’re attacking Obama — and attacking Obama is gonna hurt you in the Democratic primaries.
I get what she’s trying to do. She’s invoking Obama — and offering herself as the heir to his legacy — because her prime task, made more urgent by her big loss in New Hampshire, is to lock down the loyalties of rank and file Democrats. And it just so happens that Obama is still very popular with rank and file Democrats. According to the latest Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll, eight in 10 view Obama favorably and a similarly huge share likes his job performance.
If you search the transcript of last night’s debate, you’ll find that Bernie rarely mentioned Obama, except in response to questions. Hillary is calculating that Bernie’s insufficient ardor will hamper him in the states (starting with Nevada and South Carolina) where black and Hispanic voters are abundant. And it just so happens that Obama is still very popular in minority communities. The latest Gallup poll says that his national support among blacks is 92 percent, and the latest WSJ-NBC poll says that, in South Carolina’s black community, Hillary is leading Bernie 74-17 percent.
And just in case it wasn’t clear what Hillary was trying to do last night, she tripled down in the final minutes:
“You know, today Senator Sanders said that President Obama failed the presidential leadership test. And this is not the first time that he has criticized President Obama. In the past he has called him weak. He has called him a disappointment. He wrote a forward for a book that basically argued voters should have buyers’ remorse when it comes to President Obama’s leadership and legacy. And I just couldn’t disagree more with those kinds of comments. You know, from my perspective, maybe because I understand what President Obama inherited, not only the worst financial crisis but the antipathy of the Republicans in Congress, I don’t think he gets the credit he deserves …. And it is the kind of criticism that we’ve heard from Senator Sanders about our president I expect from Republicans. I do not expect from someone running for the Democratic nomination to succeed President Obama.”
Well. That line about Bernie attacking Obama in “a forward for a book” — not true. He didn’t write a forward; he contributed a quote for the jacket of a book that rebukes Obama as insufficiently liberal, and all he said was, “The next president of the United States must keep rallying the people who elected him, or her, on behalf of progressive causes.”
But Hillary’s sudden punch did what she intended — it put Bernie back on his heels (wait, he said, I think Obama has done an “extraordinary” job) — and then she piled on:
“You know, Senator, what I am concerned about, is … calling the president weak, calling him a disappointment, calling several times [in 2011] that he should have a primary opponent when he ran for re-election in 2012 — you know, I think that goes further than saying we have our disagreements….I understand we can disagree on the path forward. But those kinds of personal assessments and charges are ones that I find particularly troubling.”
Sanders managed one halfway decent retort — “Well, one of us ran against Barack Obama. I was not that candidate” — and, who knows, maybe he didn’t need to say anything. Maybe Hillary’s Obama embrace will amount to nothing. Maybe Bernie will make inroads with rank-and file minority Democrats in Nevada and South Carolina by touting his $15 minimum wage, and his populist attacks on billionaires and the “rigged economy.” Maybe, to those voters, Barack Obama already looks like yesterday, like a guy who didn’t do enough good.
Hillary had better hope otherwise.