WASHINGTON - After six years of symbiosis, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama may be headed for political splitsville.
The former secretary of state has signalled that should she launch a presidential run, as expected, she'll be seeking to create some distance between herself and the current commander-in-chief.
In a wide-ranging interview, she critiqued aspects of Obama's foreign policy. She did it rather gently, and reportedly even gave the White House a courtesy heads-up about the details.
The veteran politician probably foresaw the consequences of critiquing her own former colleagues, even subtly. If not, the implications were spelled out Monday in the all-caps, sensationalist front-page headline of the New York Post: "Hill blames Mideast crisis on Obama's 'STUPID POLICY.'"
Granted, the tabloid took a few liberties with the headline.
Clinton never actually called Obama's policy stupid, didn't quite blame him for problems in the Middle East, and she explicitly stated that her own approach might not have yielded better results.
But she did make two eyebrow-raising remarks during an interview with The Atlantic magazine.
First, she suggested that the chaos in the region might have been contained had the administration adopted the idea — which she advocated — of arming Syria's rebels from the start of that country's civil war.
She said the stalemate there created a vacuum, Islamist rebels stepped into it, and grew organizational strength as a result. In making that argument, Clinton hinted that she favoured a third-way approach to foreign military interventionism, somewhere between the hawkishness of George W. Bush and the more dovish Obama.
"Our government too often has a tendency to swing between these extremes," she said. "The pendulum swings back and then the pendulum swings the other way. What I’m arguing for is to take a hard look at what tools we have."
Then, at one point, she poked fun at one of Obama's supposed foreign-policy proverbs.
The president has been quoted telling U.S. journalists, in off-the-record chats, that one of his guiding principles is, "Don't do stupid (stuff)." The actual quote includes a four-letter word in place of "stuff." Put another way, it's the ancient Hippocratic Oath principle — first, do no harm — applied to modern-day foreign affairs, with a twist of contemporary cussing.
Clinton called that insufficient.
"Great nations need organizing principles, and 'Don’t do stupid stuff' is not an organizing principle," she said. She compared the current approach to fighting jihadists to the containment of Soviet communism during the Cold War, where the U.S. had a global strategy.
That's the quote the Post based its headline on. However, Clinton went on to call Obama smart, and thoughtful, and she suggested the stupid-stuff phrase was more of a political message from him than a serious statement of principle.
But this was enough to grab the attention of American political media now parsing her every public utterance for signs of Obama criticism.
Her new memoir, "Hard Choices," describes how they went from being bitter rivals to friendly colleagues. She describes being proud, watching him at work during the operation that killed Osama bin Laden.
Now the president has disastrous poll numbers among independent voters; the Middle East has been spiralling out of control; and a Clinton campaign would have to deal with those problems.
An observer at the Washington Post, examining Clinton's remarks, concluded that she's already looking at the 2016 general election and the need to retain centrist voters. While Clinton has a solid lead in hypothetical surveys about the 2016 race, she can't afford to lose independents.
Obama's approval is 35 per cent among those independent voters, according to Gallup.