- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 10, 2015

Conventional political wisdom said Hillary Rodham Clinton would run away from President Obama’s record, but instead it’s the White House incumbent who in recent weeks has put real distance between himself and his potential successor.

On scandals such as the former secretary of state’s use of private email, the White House seemingly has gone out of its way to isolate Mrs. Clinton and say as little as possible, consistently avoiding pointed questions and directing reporters to the Clinton campaign.

On political issues, the divide has been even deeper.

After Mrs. Clinton said she’d use executive authority to go further than Mr. Obama on halting deportations for illegal immigrants, the White House immediately downplayed her comments, suggesting she legally could not do more than the president already has done.

On trade promotion authority, the administration seems to have rejected the notion Mrs. Clinton could sway Democrats who remain skeptical of Mr. Obama’s push for major new trade deals. The White House has hinted Mrs. Clinton is largely irrelevant on the issue and argues it is up to Republican congressional leaders such as House Speaker John A. Boehner to muscle trade legislation through Congress.

Specialists say the recent episodes are part of Mr. Obama’s larger effort to remain relevant during his so-called “lame-duck” period and not let Mrs. Clinton take the helm of the Democratic Party, despite her status as the 2016 presidential front-runner.

“For the president, he has to walk a fine line between protecting the presidential turf and growing the party brand and helping his party win the election in 2016,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston who has written on presidential leadership. “The problem for them is there’s the risk that, at some point [Mrs. Clinton] will be able to make more and better news than he can. Her public persona may eclipse that of the president.”

Among some key constituencies within the Democratic Party, enthusiasm for Mrs. Clinton’s presidential campaign seems to be rising and soon could overtake that of the current president — if it hasn’t already.

Last week, Mrs. Clinton promised Hispanics she’d go farther than Mr. Obama on immigration reform through executive action. She said she would expand Mr. Obama’s amnesty program to the parents of so-called Dreamers, illegal immigrants who are now legally in the U.S. as a result of the president’s previous 2012 executive action.

“If Congress continues to refuse to act, as president, I would do everything possible under the law to go even further,” she said. “We should put in place a simple, straightforward, accessible way for parents of Dreamers and others with a history of service and contribution to their communities to make their case and to be eligible for the same deferred action as their children.”

A defensive White House shot back that Mr. Obama has done everything that legally can be done through executive action, and urged reporters to ask the Clinton campaign for an explanation of how the next president could do more.

“I’m not a judge. I didn’t go to law school, so I’m not going to be in a position to render a legal opinion about that,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said.

On trade promotion authority (TPA), Republican leaders have tried to drive a wedge between the Clinton campaign and the White House. Mr. Boehner last week said Mr. Obama needs Mrs. Clinton’s help to get liberal Democrats to support TPA, which would let the president negotiate trade deals and submit them to Congress for only an amendment-free up-or-down vote.

Mrs. Clinton largely has remained silent on the issue. But the White House suggested she has little sway even if she were to take a public stand.

“I think, in the mind of the president, it’s the responsibility of the speaker of the House to do his job and to pull together the votes that he needs to advance his agenda,” Mr. Earnest said.

It’s possible, analysts say, that Mrs. Clinton actually may be able to pull some Democrats to the president’s side on trade, but the White House almost surely will not ask for her help, at least not publicly.

“You’ve got big egos, and the president doesn’t want to admit they need help from someone who isn’t technically a part of the administration,” Mr. Rottinghaus said.

While it’s unlikely the White House is pursuing a broad political strategy to intentionally minimize Mrs. Clinton, officials have effectively put distance between Mr. Obama and his former secretary of state.

In the end, Mrs. Clinton will benefit from that distance and, in some ways, should be grateful for public shots coming from this White House, according to Lee Miringoff, a political science professor and director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion at New York’s Marist College.

“From Hillary Clinton’s perspective, I think she does have to have some distance both from Bill Clinton’s years as well as Barack Obama’s years. But I don’t think she really cares where that distance comes from,” Mr. Miringoff said. “In other words, if the White House throws a soft jab, that’s probably OK.”

Beyond the policy realm, the White House also has distanced itself from questions about Mrs. Clinton’s use of private email and whether foreign donations to the Clinton Foundation may have influenced the former secretary of state’s decision-making.

After Mrs. Clinton revealed that she deleted many emails from her time as secretary of state, the White House referred most questions to the Clinton campaign and to the State Department.

On questions about donations to the Clinton Foundation, the White House also has said little of substance and again referred questions to the State Department, which said last week it is not planning a review of Clinton Foundation donations.

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