Why Hillary Clinton is distancing herself from Obama

Hillary Clinton is exiting the Obama-world and airing the policy differences that were kept in private

Joyce Karam
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The conciliatory hug last night between U.S. President Barack Obama and his former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at Martha’s Vineyard was big enough to assure anxious Democrats about the course of the party but by no means puts an end to the foreign policy rift between the two camps. Clinton’s statements in her interview with Jeffrey Goldberg earlier in the week lambasting Obama’s foreign policy approach towards Syria and taking a hardline on Iran and in support of Israel is a tactical shift for the potential presidential candidate.

Clinton, after having loyally served the Obama administration as the U.S.’s top diplomat, is exiting the Obama-world and airing the policy differences that were kept in private over the past four years. The strategy is not spontaneous, and Clinton is a very calculated politician. Her move attempts to part ways with what has become an unpopular foreign policy record by criticizing it publicly, yet without completely alienating the Obama administration and hence offering to “hug it out” later.


Poll numbers

Clinton’s pivot is first and foremost driven by poll numbers. The former first lady, who suffered a defeat in the 2008 primary elections against President Barack Obama because of her vote for the widely unpopular Iraq war, is not willing to repeat the same mistake and is distancing herself from current unpopular policies in the Obama record.

Clinton’s public criticism of Obama fits the polling data. Breaking with the administration on ISIS and Syria is predictable

Joyce Karam

According to the latest poll by the Wall Street Journal and NBC, only 36 percent of Americans approve of Obama’s foreign policy job. The rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) forcing the U.S. to reengage militarily in Iraq, in addition to the Gaza war and the shaky situation in Ukraine are sinking Obama’s numbers.

Clinton’s public criticism of Obama fits the polling data. Breaking with the administration on ISIS and Syria is predictable given the level of chaos in Syria and Iraq, regardless if Clinton’s argument of arming the rebels earlier on could have worked. Clinton told Goldberg that “the failure to help build up a credible fighting force of the people who were the originators of the protests against Assad – there were Islamists, there were secularists, there was everything in the middle – the failure to do that left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled.” Criticizing Russian President Vladimir Putin is also popular inside the U.S., and among both parties who reject his actions in Ukraine.

More hawkish policymaker

Even before Obama’s rise in American politics in 2004, Clinton embraced a more hawkish foreign policy line. As a senator from New York, she was constant in her support for Israel, and took a harder line on Iran. She repeated her stance on enrichment to Goldberg saying “I’ve always been in the camp that held that they (Iran) did not have a right to enrichment.”

This foreign policy rhetoric was also evident in the Clinton campaign against Obama in 2007, and the 3:00 a.m. phone call advert, where Clinton portrays herself as more fitting than the current president to answer such call. While her interview with The Atlantic re-shed light on those positions, many of them have been mentioned in her book “Hard Choices” where she criticizes albeit with a softer tone Obama’s policy on Syria.

Even during her time as secretary of state, her positions on the Osama bin Laden raid, the Libya intervention, dealing with Russia and pressing Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki were more hardline than others in the Obama team including Vice President Joseph Biden and former Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Clinton has been even labeled by the Russian government as the “neocon of the Obama administration.”

Elections landscape

Even before making a final decision to run, Clinton is riding very high in the polls inside her own party with a margin of 54 points ahead of her rivals. This margin gives her flexibility in staying in the center on policy issues and positioning for the general elections against Republicans where these numbers will ultimately narrow.

Hence, Clinton’s bigger challenge -if she decides to run- will be facing potential Republican nominees such as Senators Marco Rubio or Rand Paul or even Ted Cruz, all of whom are mounting harsh criticism against Obama’s foreign policy record.

Obama has less room

Given her strength inside the party, and his own poll numbers, U.S. President Barack Obama has less room to abandon Clinton or flirt with the idea of supporting another potential candidate.

After all, Clinton has, in the eyes of the American public, proven to be a team player inside the Obama administration and many former Obama campaign including Mitch Stewart, Jeremy Bird and Tommy Vietor have all joined the Clinton operation or the outside group “Ready for Hillary” that is looking to draft her candidacy.

Courting the Jewish vote

Clinton’s positions including her support for Israel will help her court the Jewish vote which is key in battleground states such as Florida and Ohio. It is no secret that Jewish Americans remain very active participants in the U.S. elections and participate in large numbers in fundraising and canvassing efforts.

As secretary of state, Clinton delivered tough messages to Israel on settlement expansion and the need to negotiate with the Palestinians. But with these efforts collapsing and long behind her, Clinton is reemerging as a candidate and not as the U.S. top diplomat. Her defense of Israel and its “right to defend itself” against Hamas without faulting or blaming Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for a disproportionate response is another indication that Florida ranks for the time being higher than Washington.


Joyce Karam is the Washington Correspondent for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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