In the wake of the Paris attacks, Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton faces a conundrum: find a way to be loyal to President Obama and his policies, which she played a role in crafting as his secretary of state, while trying to distance herself from them because of their unpopularity.
Six in 10 voters now reject Mr. Obama’s handling of the Islamic State, according to a November Associated Press-GfK poll, while a Reuters/Ipsos survey found 60 percent say the U.S. should be doing more to strike at the terrorist organization.
That’s a challenge for Mrs. Clinton, who helped Mr. Obama develop his foreign policy and shares his core philosophy when it comes to dealing with the Islamic State, said Theda Skocpol, a Harvard University professor of government.
“I don’t think she is in huge disagreement with what the president is doing,” said Ms. Skocpol.
Left without big differences, Mrs. Clinton is drawing distinctions on the margins, including using different word choices to try to score political points where Mr. Obama is losing voters.
In Saturday’s Democratic presidential debate, Mrs. Clinton tried to separate herself from Mr. Obama’s comment just days earlier when he said the Islamic State was contained in Iraq and Syria. Mrs. Clinton instead said the movement “cannot be contained. It must be defeated.”
Also, out on the campaign trail, Mrs. Clinton has taken marginal shots at the president for failing to arm Syrian rebels to fight the government of President Bashar Assad as recommended by herself and other top national security advisers in the early days of the Syrian civil war. Most analysts agree there was no guarantee arming the rebels would’ve led to any different an outcome.
Mrs. Clinton’s nuancing comes as the president’s anti-terror strategy takes fire from even longtime aides such as former CIA Deputy Director Mike Morell, who worked under both Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton, and says it’s time for a new strategy against the militant group.
“I think it’s now crystal clear to us that our strategy, our policy vis-a-vis ISIS, is not working, and it’s time to look at something else,” Mr. Morell said of the Obama administration’s handling of the terror organization on CBS News’ “Face the Nation,” using an acronym for the Islamic State.
Mrs. Clinton has struggled to explain the rise of the Islamic State and propose solutions without implicating her own involvement.
And she must do it with Sen. Bernard Sanders, who is running for Democrats’ nomination on a platform to Mrs. Clinton’s left, repeatedly blaming her for helping sew the conditions in the Middle East with her support for the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Mrs. Clinton has since said she regretted that vote.
An increased focus on foreign policy highlights Mrs. Clinton’s experience and her toughness — two of her biggest assets — but it also shines a light on some of her failures. Among those are championing U.S.-supported regime changes in the Middle East, in both Iraq and Libya, where critics argue the power vacuums that were left were filled by terrorist organizations, most notably the Islamic State.
“These are difficult waters for her to navigate,” said L. Sandy Maisel, a political science professor at Colby College in Maine. “I don’t think she can suggest a policy different than Obama.”
On Saturday night Mrs. Clinton defended her stance in Libya, arguing there was a U.S. strategy after the fall of Moammar Gadhafi.
“Well, we did have a plan,” she insisted. “The Libyans turned out for one of the most successful, fairest elections that any Arab country has had. They elected moderate leaders. Now there has been a lot of turmoil and trouble as they have tried to deal with these radical elements, which you find in this arc of instability, from North Africa to Afghanistan.”
That rang hollow to analysts who said the country, which has become a recruiting ground for the Islamic State, is not a high point for Mrs. Clinton.
“Libya is certainly a question — how we left Libya — and that’s an answer she’s going to have to work on,” said Mr. Maisel. “It was a fair question, and I’m amazed she didn’t seem to have a real answer.”
Mrs. Clinton also refused to say the U.S. was at war with “radical Islam” after the Paris attacks, instead saying they were “jihadists” so as to not offend potential Muslim allies with what they may consider offensive rhetoric.
In that she’s again echoing Mr. Obama, who has declined to single out radical Islam, even as other world leaders blame extremist religious fanatics. And Mrs. Clinton, like Mr. Obama, has tried to deflect blame for the chaotic Middle East and the rise of the Islamic State after U.S. troops were withdrawn in 2011, when she was heading the State Department.
“I don’t think that the United States has the bulk of the responsibility,” Mrs. Clinton said on Saturday, explaining the rise of Islamic State. “I really put that on Assad and on the Iraqis and on the region itself.”
Mrs. Clinton argued the Islamic State has been able to rise in power largely because of Syrian and Iraqi policies and flared divisions between Sunni Shiite factions — not what many consider to be a failed U.S. policy that she helped champion.
“@HillaryClinton seems trapped between being candidate and a responsible potential president. Solid answers. Not necessarily winning ones,” tweeted Democratic strategist David Axelrod, while Mrs. Clinton was defending her and the president’s foreign policy positions on Sunday.
Still, Mrs. Clinton seems to be on solid footing within the Democratic primary, where the other candidates pale in comparison to her experience.
“She’s already passed the threshold with most Democratic voters,” Ms. Skocpol said. “In the last debate she moved to the forefront because she showed such a command for the issues, and a lot of Democrats, including those who love Bernie Sanders, now know she’s the horse we need to run.”
Dealing with the Islamic State is complicated, and Americans seem reluctant to commit additional troops to the Middle East or get pulled into another war — and both Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton are toeing that line, Ms. Skocpol said.
“The only real fault line to differentiate herself from the president’s policy would be to say we should reinvade the Middle East — and that’s not a popular policy on either side of the aisle,” said Ms. Skocpol.
• Kelly Riddell can be reached at email@example.com.
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