It’s being called Hillary’s “shadow campaign.” But the shadow campaign actually began when she was secretary of state. Obama granted his former rival special privileges and allowed her to move Hillaryland, with all her loyal image-buffers and political aides, into the State Department intact.
Because he doesn’t traffic in the unseemly nitty-gritty of politics that is mother’s milk to the Clintons, Obama has been somewhat naïve in how he has handled the imagery of their relationship.
West Wing strategists did not totally trust Hillary after the bitter 2008 battle. They thought by pulling the former secretary of state close, Obama could ensure that Hillary was not out there recreating events and decisions or taking more credit than she deserved — as she sometimes did during her 2008 campaign.
So Obama did not seem fully aware, with their cozy joint “60 Minutes” interview and their laughing al fresco lunch at the White House recently, that instead of co-opting Hillary, he looked like he was handing her the White House silver on a silver platter. The Clintons can present those images as Obama passing the torch and bypassing Joe Biden, just as Bill once took a simple handshake from J.F.K. during a Boys Nation visit to the White House and turned it into an Arthurian moment.
Many Democrats are hungry to make history again, and they see the first woman president as the natural successor to the first black president.
But in other ways, Hillary is not such a natural successor. The Clintons are ends-justify-the-means types with flexible boundaries about right and wrong, while the Obama mystique is the opposite. His White House runs on the idea that if you are virtuous and true and honorable, people will ultimately come to you. (An ethos that sometimes collides with political success.)
It’s odd that Obama, who once talked about being a transformational president, did not want to ensure that his allies and his aims were imprinted on the capital. Instead, he has teed up the ball for Hillary. Some of the excitement about Barack Obama was the prospect of making a clean start, after years of getting dragged into the Clintons’ dubious ethics and personal messes. Yet Obama ushered in the return of Clinton Inc. and gave it his blessing.
What President Obama doesn’t seem to realize yet is that Hillary’s first term will be seen, not as a continuation of Obama, but as Bill Clinton’s third term.