Hillary Rodham Clinton hugged out her differences with President Obama on Wednesday night, but she may need to save some of that affection for disenchanted liberals who fear the Democratic party’s 2016 front-runner is acting more like a thinly veiled neoconservative.
After her harsh critique of Mr. Obama’s foreign policy in an interview published last week, the two talked by phone Tuesday and met in person Wednesday at a private party on Martha’s Vineyard. The White House said the president and first lady “were happy to have the chance to spend time” with Mrs. Clinton.
But progressive activists looking for a champion in the 2016 Democratic primary appear less forgiving than the president.
“I thought the Democratic party was fairly unified on foreign policy these days. But when she goes insulting Obama for his foreign policy weaknesses, suddenly people realize there needs to be a debate about foreign policy as well,” said Roger Hickey, founder of the Campaign for America’s Future, a liberal organization.
Mrs. Clinton’s interview with the Atlantic magazine was published just days after Mr. Obama ordered airstrikes on militant Islamic insurgents in Iraq — strikes that had already caused deep divisions within a progressive movement that had found unity in opposing President George W. Bush’s decision to go to war in Iraq.
In her critique of Mr. Obama, his former secretary of state blasted the administration for failing to act sooner to halt the march of the Islamic State, which is making key gains across Iraq.
She also attacked the president’s philosophy on foreign policy: “Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.”
The 2003 Iraq war was a key dividing line when Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama faced off in the 2008 Democratic primary, and liberal groups warned Mrs. Clinton to remember how that worked out.
“Secretary Clinton, and any other person thinking about seeking the Democratic nomination in 2016, should think long and hard before embracing the same policies advocated by right-wing war hawks that got America into Iraq in the first place and helped set the stage for Iraq’s troubles today,” said Ilya Sheyman, executive director of MoveOn.org Political Action, a powerful liberal advocacy group. “Voters elected President Obama in 2008 to bring the war in Iraq to an end. MoveOn members will continue to stand with elected officials who oppose military escalation that could put us back on a path to endless war.”
In the days since the interview, both Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama have sought to quell talk of a rift.
“Secretary Clinton and the president have broad agreement on a wide range of issues. That’s why they worked so effectively for four years, even when there’s small policy differences,” White House principal deputy press secretary Eric Schultz told reporters Wednesday at Martha’s Vineyard, where the president is vacationing for two weeks.
Mrs. Clinton followed suit at a book signing Wednesday. With a smile on her face, the former first lady said she was “proud” to have served as Mr. Obama’s secretary of state and brushed off differences between the two.
“We agree. We are committed to the values and the interests of the security of our country together. We have disagreements as any partners and friends, as we are, might very well have,” Mrs. Clinton said.
Still, Mrs. Clinton’s willingness to take on the president publicly and embrace a more hawkish foreign policy could indicate she’s not worried about a 2008 repeat, when the more liberal Mr. Obama captured the hearts of Democratic voters.
Virtually all polls show that Mrs. Clinton is miles ahead of her potential Democratic primary rivals.
Progressive darling Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Massachusetts Democrat, is widely viewed as one of the few who could mount a serious challenge to the Clinton juggernaut, but she’s said repeatedly she won’t seek the White House in 2016.
Other prospective Democratic candidates, such as Vice President Joseph R. Biden and Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, trail far behind Mrs. Clinton in recent surveys.
But even if she avoids a viable threat from the left, Mrs. Clinton still may be taking a serious risk by alienating some in the party’s hard-core liberal base.
“There are a lot of progressives who like her and want her to win but don’t especially want to see her attacking the president,” Mr. Hickey said.