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Hillary Clinton’s Conundrum

Obama could end up beating her twice.

By 5.16.14

UPI
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Hillary Clinton’s 2016 conundrum: retaining Obama’s coalition, while distancing from his administration. Neither will be easy, but both are essential — especially for her. As she faces a decision whether to run, she also faces the very real possibility that Obama could wind up beating her twice. 

Every Democratic contender, not just Clinton, faces a serious challenge in seeking to hold together Obama’s coalition. The coalition’s components are no secret: young, women, minorities, Independents, and liberals powered Obama to more significant wins than many recognize. Obama won election in 2008 with the largest popular vote percentage of any Democrat since LBJ in 1964. In 2012, he was the first Democrat to win reelection with a popular vote majority since FDR.

Any Democrat seeking the presidency wants this coalition behind them, but past nominees could not do it. Over two elections, Obama averaged 55.5% of the women’s vote, 69.5% of Hispanics’, 86.5% of liberals’, 48% of Independents’, and 61.5% of those 18-29 years old. In comparison in these voter categories, Kerry received 51%, 53%, 85%, 49%, and 54%, respectively, and Gore 54%, 62%, 80%, 45%, and 48%, respectively. 

Not only have other Democrats been unable to assemble this coalition, but there are real doubts whether Obama himself still retains it now. According to the recent Washington Post-ABC News poll (released 4/29 of 1,000 adults nationwide with a MOE of +/-3.5%), Obama’s job approval rating has fallen to 44% among women, 52% among Hispanics, 63% among liberals, 33% among Independents, and 43% among 18-39 year olds. In each of these categories, Obama is now at or below Kerry and Gore’s support levels from 2004 and 2000.

Hillary’s challenge to retain the Obama coalition is steep indeed. But it is not her only one. As Obama’s own fading approval ratings — even among the components of his coalition — show, any Democrat running in 2016’s general election now appears to need distance from Obama’s administration. 

This will be particularly hard for Hillary because she was a charter member of this administration as Secretary of State. Foreign policy has not been a strong suit of this administration. Leaving aside the Benghazi episode, there were few notable accomplishments achieved during her time in the administration. And while not on her watch, foreign policy has had a particularly poor showing of late — something critics will certainly attempt to tie to her tenure.

Further, Clinton has links to other areas of this administration’s weakness. Like any Democrat, she will be severely hurt if the economy’s lackluster performance of the last five years continues. Another particular weakness for this White House is obviously Obamacare. Clinton was not a participant in this, but prior to Obamacare, no one was more firmly tied to a big government health care plan than Hillary — an effort she led in her husband’s administration, and which contributed significantly to Republicans’ 1994 Congressional landslide.

Another special challenge for Hillary could be the favorable press treatment Obama has received. The media is unlikely to give such a pass twice — and likely will be self-conscious about any perception of doing so. Hillary has no shortage of baggage for a media seeking to reestablish its critical treatment of presidential candidates. Furthermore, it has shown no past lack of willingness to explore Clinton’s baggage either.

Hillary is no Obama. Admittedly, no Democrat has been, but few may be less so. While Obama has seen his job ratings drop since reelection, he himself has remained personally popular. The American people still like him, even while disapproving of his policies. “Likable” is not the word most people would associate with Clinton — even among Democrats, who rejected her in 2008 for Obama. Hillary can expect to have immediate detractors across the political spectrum, something Obama did not have in 2008.

The question now before Hillary is: Will Obama effectively beat her twice? Everyone remembers the first time in one of the biggest presidential primary upsets in recent history. Hillary had all the establishment, the money, and momentum needed to win… and she lost to a freshman senator. The question still lingers: How much of that defeat was pro-Obama and how much anti-Clinton? 

Now she stands as the Democrats’ prohibitive presidential favorite once more. And eight years later, Obama once more could be her downfall. Even though Obama is not on the ballot, he is still firmly in the public’s mind. Should Hillary run in 2016, she faces the prospect of taking on all Obama’s political debits, while struggling to retain his assets. A Republican Congress, which Obama’s eroding support could yield this November, would only increase her difficulties. 

Clinton’s conundrum starts to appear ever clearer. It will be hard for any Democrat to replicate what Obama did, but it may be even harder for Hillary to do it. 

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About the Author

J.T. Young served in the Department of Treasury and the Office of Management and Budget from 2001 to 2004 and as a Congressional staff member from 1987 to 2000.