If you watched Thursday’s Democratic debate, you might have picked up on a theme that Hillary Clinton returned to several times throughout the night: a consistent and unreserved embrace of President Obama.
She described herself as “a staunch supporter of President Obama’s principal accomplishment — namely, the Affordable Care Act.” When it came time for Hillary to defend her support from the financial industry, she explained, “I debated then-Sen. Obama numerous times on stages like this, and he was the recipient of the largest number of Wall Street donations of anybody running on the Democratic side ever.” To defend her foreign policy record, Hillary said “Sen. Obama, when he ran against me, was against the war in Iraq, and yet when he won he turned to me, trusting my judgment, my experience, to become secretary of state.” When it came to elevating and praising the president, Hillary did everything short of naming him her running mate.
Republicans were probably thrilled to see Clinton surgically graft herself to Obama given that they live in a strange alternate universe in which the president whose approval rating floats around in the high 40s is a manifest failure. But Hillary’s not worried about giving Republicans ammunition – she’s worried about Bernie Sanders. By positioning herself as a dogged, vocal defender of the president who will suffer no slights against his name and character, Clinton’s looking to undercut Bernie in two distinct ways.
The more immediate purpose of Hillary’s Obama embrace was to blunt Sanders’ attacks on her Wall Street ties and foreign policy judgment. The message is fairly straightforward: if taking money from bankers is so bad, then what do you say to the popular Democratic president who did the same? If my foreign policy judgment is so bad, then why did Obama make me his top diplomat? It’s not the strongest rebuttal to Sanders’ criticisms, given that “Obama did it too” isn’t so much a defense of accepting Wall Street contributions so much as it is an acknowledgment that it’s a persistent feature of modern politics (which is Bernie’s larger point). And the fact that Hillary was appointed secretary of state doesn’t mean she didn’t make mistakes while serving in that capacity (Libya, for example). But it’s one of the stronger cards she can play, so she threw it down with gusto.
Later in the debate Hillary went a step further with an unprompted attack on Sanders for the act of criticizing Barack Obama:
CLINTON: I want to follow up on something having to do with leadership, because, you know, today Senator Sanders said that President Obama failed the leadership test. And this is not the first time that he has criticized President Obama. In the past he has called him weak. He has called him a disappointment. He wrote a foreword for a book that basically argued voters should have buyers’ remorse when it comes to President Obama’s leadership and legacy. And I just couldn’t disagree more with those kinds of comments.
This gets to the second way Clinton moved to hurt Bernie by embracing Obama. She’s looking to disqualify Sanders in the eyes of the president’s most fervent supporters, and she’s doing so just as the primary shifts to states that boast higher percentages of minority voters – black voters in particular – who are enthusiastic Obama backers. The latest Economist/YouGov poll from mid-January put Obama’s favorability rating among African-Americans at 83 percent (67 percent were “very favorable”). His job approval rating stood at 81 percent (54 percent strongly approving). And on the question of leadership, which was the core of Clinton’s attack on Sanders, 85 percent of African-Americans view Obama as a strong leader, with 58 percent calling him “very strong.”
Clinton is going to rely heavily on those voters in the coming contests, and she needs to prevent them from bleeding over to Sanders as he picks up momentum coming out of New Hampshire. Driving a wedge between Sanders and Obama and positioning herself as an unquestioned champion of the president could an effective way to do that.