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Barack Obama’s Hillary Clinton Problem

Clinton's separation from Obama on immigration is the first of what could be many headaches for the White House. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Clinton's separation from Obama on immigration is the first of what could be many headaches for the White House. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

You knew it was coming: The White House is starting to get a case of Clintonitis.  

With Hillary Rodham Clinton the overwhelming favorite to carry the Democratic torch next year — and now an official candidate starting to spout policy positions — the White House has been forced to parry an ever-increasing barrage of questions.  

Speaker John A. Boehner got the ball rolling by asking President Barack Obama to enlist Clinton’s help to pass fast-track trade authority. That had White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest retaliating, suggesting such a move would signal desperation from the GOP.  

“It seems a little early for a pretty desperate act like that, to basically suggest that you need a candidate for office from the other party to help you advance the agenda when you’ve got the majority in the House of Representatives,” Earnest said.

He later had to use all the rhetorical tools in his arsenal to avoid commenting on Clinton’s push to set up a deferred action process for the parents of “DREAMers,” who brought their children to the United States illegally years ago, so they can avoid deportation.

Reporters asked if an expansion of Obama’s executive actions would be legal. “That will be something for future presidents and ultimately future courts to decide,” Earnest replied.

What about Clinton’s plan? “I’m not a judge and I didn’t go to law school, so I’m not going to be in a position to render a legal opinion …” he said.

But the White House has already issued its legal opinion that the president went as far as he could go.

The strategy seems to be: When in doubt, refer to Clinton’s team.

“I’ll let Secretary Clinton and her campaign describe exactly what steps they envision taking, and I’ll allow them to make the case about why it’s legal,” Earnest said.

Senators on Capitol Hill face a similar dynamic, with DREAM Act sponsor Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., claiming ignorance as to what might be possible with executive orders when asked whether he agrees with the president’s assertion he has done everything he can — or if he agrees with Clinton there’s room to go further.

Then there are the missing Clinton emails and foreign donations to the Clinton Foundation while she was secretary of State.  

Earnest — and Obama — have done their best to keep the presidential campaign at bay, aided by a Clinton campaign that, until very recently, had been sandblasted of anything approaching serious policy proposals. (Her website still doesn’t have an issues page.)  

The White House has even kept meetings Obama has held with Clinton — and former President Bill Clinton — off the public schedule.  

That’s only going to get more awkward as the campaign gears up and Clinton starts laying out an agenda, which necessarily will include either new items or recycled Obama proposals that failed to launch (universal pre-school, anyone?).  

The president can expect a lot of “Why didn’t Obama do that?” questions. If the White House simply blames Congress — a standard fallback — that would undercut Clinton’s ability to claim she’ll get things done. Unless, of course, she and her team were to join in on the chorus of criticism about Obama’s congressional relations.  

The New York Times reported last month that while Clinton was campaigning in Iowa, she told lawmakers privately she could do a better job working with Congress. The Times reported it was one of her best-received lines.  

“One of her biggest messages was, ‘I know how hard it is to work with Congress; I’ve done it before, and I will continue to when I’m in the White House,’’’ state Rep. Mary Mascher of Iowa City, who attended the closed-door meeting, told the newspaper.  

There’s also the potential for moments that could have the feel of Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. going off-script and endorsing gay marriage ahead of the president. The bolder Clinton and her team become, the more awkward the non-answers from Earnest and company will be.  

There also is the real possibility of Clinton undermining the remaining parts of the Obama agenda that can get through a GOP Congress as she seeks to rally the Democratic base and shore up her left flank against the likes of Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley and, maybe, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio. That includes the trade agenda and assorted other messy compromises to come.  

A senior administration official minimized the issue, saying there’s no daily call with the Clinton team yet to vet issues, although the two camps keep in touch. Many Clinton hands are veterans of the administration, including former Obama Communications Director Jennifer Palmieri.  

“They have been focused on driving a contrast with GOPers, not with us,” the official told CQ Roll Call. “That’s not just a testament to our shared values and priorities. It’s a reflection of the president’s political standing.”  

Obama, after all, remains very popular within the Democratic Party and his national poll ratings have nudged higher.  

Indeed, his approval ratings lately have eclipsed Clinton’s.  


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