As the 2016 presidential campaign approaches, much attention has been paid to presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s efforts to distance herself from President Barack Obama. Because of the president’s relative lack of popularity, Ms. Clinton cannot be seen as representing a third Obama term. However, as a Democrat, she also needs to avoid alienating key parts of the base, most notably African-Americans, who remain supportive of the president.
Yesterday on ABC’s “This Week” President Obama said all the right things about Hillary Clinton, indicating she would be a “formidable” candidate and a “great” president, while recognizing that she would have to separate herself a bit from him. The president, when asked about his role in 2016, demurred. “”I think the American people, you know, they’re going to want, you know, that new car smell,” he explained. “They want to drive something off the lot that doesn’t have as much mileage.” The extended automotive metaphor notwithstanding, this is the kind of modest response a president in Obama’s situation, with low poll numbers, should give. It is also very easy to see this as a critique of Ms. Clinton as well. Coming from a younger Democratic opponent, these words would be a clear jibe aimed at Ms. Clinton. The former Secretary of State may be many positive things including smart, tough, experienced and hard-working. As a politician, however, she most definitely does not have “that new car smell.” Similarly, Ms. Clinton’s extensive experience could be perceived as meaning she has “much mileage.”
Perhaps Mr. Obama meant to make a subtle swipe at Ms. Clinton, or perhaps he was just trying to be graceful about what will likely be a diminished role for him in 2016. The relationship between the president and the woman he defeated, appointed, and now appears to be supporting again is complex; both Mr. Obama and Ms. Clinton seem, at times, unable to resist, criticizing each other. If, as expected, Ms. Clinton runs for President, the Democratic primary will not be competitive, but with Mr. Obama still in the White House, it may yet be entertaining.
Lincoln Mitchell is national political correspondent for the Observer. Follow him on Twitter @LincolnMitchell.