Et tu, Joe?
Whether out of frustration or political necessity, some of President Obama’s closest lieutenants from his first term are distancing themselves from Mr. Obama as 2016 approaches. The latest is none other than Vice President Joseph R. Biden, who usually boasts about the lack of daylight between the president and himself.
The vice president let it be known last week that he was “ticked off” about the way the president forced out Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, a longtime Senate colleague of Mr. Biden’s. Mr. Hagel was pushed out in less than two years by a White House that is accused of micromanaging national security policy.
Earlier this year, former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton criticized Mr. Obama’s stated principle of foreign policy: “Don’t do stupid stuff.”
“Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle,” Mrs. Clinton said in an interview.
An anonymous Clinton ally criticized Mr. Obama’s handling of the Islamic State and other Middle Eastern crises this fall as too “passive,” saying, Mrs. Clinton “would have taken a more aggressive approach.”
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Presidents occasionally receive harsh reviews from former Cabinet members, but former Defense Secretaries Robert M. Gates and Leon E. Panetta both have issued broadsides against Mr. Obama in tell-all books.
The comments by Mr. Biden, a potential presidential candidate in 2016, and Mrs. Clinton, a likely candidate, illustrate the uncomfortable process of separating legacies from the unpopular president after Democrats took a thrashing in midterm elections.
“President Obama is at an all-time low in approval ratings,” Republican strategist Ron Bonjean said. “Americans haven’t seen the changes that he promised would happen, with our economy and national security. And so Democrats like Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden are going to run away from the president as fast as they can. They cannot run on President Obama’s record because there isn’t much success to go with it.”
Nowhere was Mr. Obama’s baggage spelled out so vividly as in a postelection survey by Democracy Corps, the Democratic polling firm run by Stan Greenberg and James Carville, former advisers to President Clinton.
Their Nov. 14 report said a majority of the public is dissatisfied with the economy and 47 percent of those surveyed don’t believe it is improving.
“The lack of progress on everyday economic experience leads many to question whether an economic recovery is actually even occurring,” their memo said. “With the public aggrieved about the new economy and demanding big changes in direction, Democrats and progressives will only get heard when they join the economic debate with a very different voice.”
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In another report this month, Democracy Corps said Mr. Obama’s campaign message on the economy was too timid.
“The voters want to vote for change, and this poll shows that the Democrats and their supportive coalition would rally to a message that understands people are struggling with the new economy; but that was not president’s economic narrative for this election and it showed,” the pollsters said.
Their election night survey found that Mrs. Clinton would defeat Republican Mitt Romney in a hypothetical matchup by 6 percentage points. It noted that this margin doesn’t reflect the projected growth of Democrat-leaning groups such as millennials and Hispanics in the 2016 electorate.
Weeks after that report was released, Mrs. Clinton made a rare public statement of support for Mr. Obama’s executive action to grant legal status and work permits to nearly 5 million illegal immigrants, a move long sought by Hispanic groups.
Others say it is dangerous for Mrs. Clinton to side with Mr. Obama’s immigration policy. Douglas Schoen, a former pollster for Mr. Clinton, and Patrick Caddell, a former pollster for President Carter, said Mr. Obama’s executive action was “just the latest thorn in the side” of Mrs. Clinton.
“Mrs. Clinton would likely inherit a damaged party — and as a former member of his administration, she would struggle with the consequences of Mr. Obama’s go-it-alone governance,” they wrote in The Wall Street Journal. They said only 43 percent of those polled in the midterms think Mrs. Clinton would make a good president, and she lost against a hypothetical generic Republican candidate by 40 percent to 34 percent.
They concluded that doubling down on Mr. Obama’s policies would further hurt Mrs. Clinton.
Mr. Biden, whose political future seems more open to doubt, said in a speech just after the elections that the economy during the Obama administration has grown at a more rapid pace than nearly all of the 1990s — when the Clintons occupied the White House.
Mr. Obama said last week that he probably won’t campaign much for the eventual Democratic presidential nominee because voters want “that new car smell.”
“They want to drive something off the lot that doesn’t have as much mileage as me,” Mr. Obama said, adding that probably would remain on the sidelines as the primary season heats up.
Judging from the reactions of Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Biden, that won’t be a problem.