After he won the Democratic crown in 2008, Barack Obama told friends that if Hillary Clinton succeeded him as president, “I will have failed”. Things have come a long way since then. Now Obama and Clinton will sink or swim together.
If Clinton takes the White House in 2016, Obama’s legacy will be safe. Equally, if the president’s ratings continue to languish in the next three years, Clinton’s ambitions could be dashed. Each needs the other. Like it or not, their fates are tied.
Some might see this as a fairy tale union of once deeply embittered rivals. But the downsides are readily apparent. Obama’s 2008 quip stemmed from the fact that he had been elected on the promise that he would break the mould of US politics. Clinton represented the old Washington rule book – the cynical game-playing that was personified by Bill and Hillary. Obama offered something fresh. His youth-infused campaign played Silicon Valley start-up to Clinton’s tired old brand.
Now Obama wants to breathe life into it. But, as they know in the world of business, two established brands do not always add up to more than the sum of their parts. Think of AOL’s merger with Time Warner. Or Hewlett-Packard’s takeover of Compaq.
The fact that Jim Messina, Obama’s 2012 campaign manager, is now backing Clinton’s still undeclared bid says a lot. Messina runs Priorities USA, a nominally independent vehicle that helped bankroll Obama’s 2012 re-election. Messina was recently hired to help Britain’s Conservative party, currently governing in coalition, win the 2015 general election. Messina brings the best voter database and roster of donors in the land. But it will be difficult for Clinton to fashion something fresh out of it.
Yet that is what she must do. The bookies already give Clinton strong odds to win the Democratic nomination and reasonable chances of winning the White House. That is precisely the same as they gave her in 2007. Then Clinton was seen as the inevitable candidate. Today she might be described as prohibitively inevitable. Mindful of avoiding the hubris that undid her campaign last time round, Clinton is now vulnerable to her own systematic caution. This summer she will bring out a memoir of her four years as secretary of state under Obama. It will studiously avoid saying anything that could open a rift with the Obama administration. Her previous book, Living History, which chronicled her years as First Lady, was hardly a laugh-a-minute. To say the least, it would be a surprise if the next instalment were a page-turner.
Much like her forthcoming book, Clinton will be damned if she opens a breach with Obama yet risks being damned if she sticks too close. Today Obama will give his sixth State of the Union address to Congress. The media is uninterested – unsurprisingly, given the mood in Congress. Instead it has been dominated by speculation about Clinton’s campaign-in-waiting. The State of the Union will focus on restoring equality of opportunity. Yet the media is riveted by an undeclared candidacy for 2016. Obama has lost his lustre. How soon will the media tire of Clinton?
Then there is the substance of Clinton’s campaign. Obama has chosen a relevant theme for tonight. Rising inequality and the hollowing-out middle are touchstone issues of the age. If you are seeking the Democratic nomination, there is not much else to campaign on nowadays. To do so, Clinton will need to rekindle the blue-collar passion that she tapped in heartland states such as Pennsylvania and Ohio in 2008. Obama won the nomination with the help of educated youth and non-white minorities. Clinton took the bulk of the white middle-class vote. Yet her ability to identify with the squeezed middle is considerably weaker than it was seven years ago.
Nowadays Clinton gets paid handsomely by hedge funds to make speeches: in one recent weekend she netted $800,000. Her daughter Chelsea is inheriting the reins at the Clinton Global Initiative, which is among the most high-profile venues for corporate philanthropy on the planet. There is hardly a billionaire who is not part of their constellation. If the Clintons are not plutocrats, then who qualifies? Nor has their judgment of the people around them necessarily improved. Loyalty remains a problem. Last time, Clinton was undone by the likes of Mark Penn, her controversial adviser, whose dismissiveness of Obama left the former First Lady’s campaign badly unprepared.
This time there are plenty on the fringes of Clintonland who could bring them trouble. Among them is Douglas Band, the former head of the CGI, who leveraged Bill Clinton’s philanthropic contacts to co-found Teneo, a global advisory firm. There is also Marjorie Margolies, Chelsea Clinton’s mother-in-law, who is mired in allegations that she overpaid herself as head of a taxpayer-funded charity. Margolies, whose former husband, Edward Mezvinsky, was imprisoned for fraud, is running for Congress. And so on.
None of these landmines will necessarily go off. Clinton could slip up repeatedly and still cruise to victory against an inept Republican opponent. Moreover, she would take office as one of the most qualified presidents in history. But a campaign for the White House should start with a sense of excitement. At this point that will take quite some doing.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2014.