Conventional wisdom has long held that Hillary Clinton, if she runs for president, would be the clear frontrunner for the Democratic nomination in 2016. But after a trifecta of scandals buffeting President Obama – fresh questions about the White House’s veracity on Benghazi, the IRS’s harassment of conservative non-profits and the Justice Department seizure of AP telephone records – Clinton's close connections with Obama could become politically problematic.
Some Republicans believe that revelations about the Benghazi operation could lead to unflattering details that cast questions about Clinton’s stewardship at the State Department. If there was any attempt to downplay the details of what transpired for political reasons, the blowback would be serious. But Clinton could have more to lose over the general tenor of scandal that’s lately suffused this administration. If the media focus shifts from Obama’s second-term legacy to second-term scandal, it would cast a cloud over those looking to capitalize on his coattails.
The last week has been rough for the president. As political analyst Stuart Rothenberg wrote Tuesday, a confident administration now looks “out of touch and unresponsive.” He warns if the controversies worsen, “many Americans will start to doubt his administration’s veracity and values.” The conservative narrative of the Obama White House as hyper-politicized and thin-skinned about its opposition is starting to resemble reality. If that image begins to stick, it will be hard to shake off.
Clinton knows all too well about how scandal can intensify the public's desire for change, both when she ran her first presidential race against Obama in 2008, and at the conclusion of her husband’s second term. Public dissatisfaction with George W. Bush made Democratic party voters looking for someone disconnected from the decision to go to war with Iraq. Enter Obama. Nearly a decade earlier, then-Vice President Al Gore awkwardly tried to distance himself from his former boss in the wake of Bill Clinton’s sex scandal, despite voters’ widespread approval of Clinton’s policies.
Until this week, it seemed obvious that the next Democratic presidential nominee would be running on Obama’s legacy. He's maintained his popularity with the liberal base. His job approval numbers, despite troubles passing his agenda through Congress, have been decent, hovering around the 50 percent mark. He appeared content blaming legislative gridlock on a GOP-controlled House in the run-up to the 2014 midterms, even repeating that argument at a fundraiser in the midst of the feeding frenzy Monday. Immigration reform could become law, though it will be hard to summon the necessary goodwill with Republicans given what’s transpired.
The Clintons expected that voters would welcome the equivalent of a third Obama term. She accepted the job as Secretary of State after a grueling campaign against Obama, recognizing the benefits to her long-term interests. Bill Clinton tirelessly campaigned for Obama in 2012, probably expecting some chits to be repaid down the road. Before leaving, she sat down with the president on “60 Minutes” receiving largely softball questions about her performance at State. Her own approval ratings, at least before the Benghazi hearings, were near all-time highs.
But by being so closely tied to Obama, she could reap some blowback if any of these scandals metastasize. If they do, Democratic voters may be looking for a fresher face, someone who has spent less time in Washington.
To be sure, if she ran, Clinton would enter a 2016 race with numerous advantages. There’s a sparse bench of national Democratic prospects behind her, with Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, and New York Gov. Anthony Cuomo among those waiting in the wings. Vice President Joe Biden, whose approval ratings have always trailed the president’s, would enter a race with similar baggage if Obama’s popularity turned for the worse.
Outside the White House, many Democrats have been frustrated that the president’s political operation hasn’t spent enough time building up the party during his time in office, focused on his brand over the broader needs of Democrats. Obama-allied groups, like Organizing for Action, have taken up many of the responsibilities the Democratic National Committee normally handles. The historic nature of Obama’s presidency hasn’t brought a new wave of black Democratic officeholders to Congress, as Politico’s Jonathan Martin detailed, despite his coalition’s dependence on them.
Clinton, by virtue of her service to Obama, was uniquely-positioned to capitalize on those ties. After a brutal 2008 campaign, she spent her time in Foggy Bottom cultivating an apolitical image – aided by some aggressive political handlers – while benefiting from the president’s broad popularity. The unusual void of top-tier Democratic talent made a presidential run all the more enticing.
But with scandal lurking, all those advantages could end up being for naught. Clinton knows something about being embarrassed by a president. Her political hopes may be disappointed by another.