Hillary and Obama: Different campaigns, opposite tasks

WASHINGTON — Both are groundbreaking presidential prospects. And Democrats.

Beyond that, the differences between Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama in historic campaigns are more striking than their similarities. Their strengths and weaknesses are in some ways polar opposites, and Clinton in 2016 would face a political landscape fundamentally different from the one Obama encountered in 2008.

Rival-turned-ally Clinton undoubtedly would have lessons to learn from Obama's 2008 tactics, including the power of social media and the use of technology in tracking voters. But if she decides to run, his campaign won't offer much of a template when it comes to strategy.

In some ways — she would be a candidate seeking a third term for her party while the incumbent president's popularity is sagging — her task could be more like that faced by the Republican contender in 2008, Arizona Sen. John McCain.

"You've got obviously a very different political dynamic," says Robert Gibbs, Obama's chief spokesman during the 2008 campaign and his first term in the White House. "You've got Hillary Clinton running to replace another Democratic president. You don't have the great foil of a Republican incumbent like George Bush that we had in the Obama campaign. And Hillary comes in as a completely known quantity. That's both a positive and a negative."

"You can't compare her with Obama," says Democratic consultant Donna Brazile, who managed Al Gore's presidential campaign in 2000. "That was totally different."

Start with their résumés.

Age, for instance. Obama, 47 when he was inaugurated in 2009, was the fourth-youngest person elected president. At age 69 on Inauguration Day 2017, Clinton would be older than any newly elected president except Ronald Reagan.

And experience. When he was sworn in, Obama had served four years in the U.S. Senate and almost eight years in the Illinois Senate. In contrast, Clinton would start the race having spent four years as Obama's secretary of State and eight years as a U.S. senator from New York, not to mention eight years as a White House adviser to her husband, President Bill Clinton.

Obama was a political unknown until he delivered a stem-winder at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, becoming the party's nominee four years later. Hillary Clinton, a featured figure at six of the past seven Democratic conventions, is so widely recognized that headline writers feel free to refer to her by first name only, like Cher and Oprah.

About this point before the 2008 campaign, in May 2006, 50% of those polled by Newsweek/Princeton Survey Research had never heard of Barack Obama. An additional 10% didn't know enough about him to say whether they had a favorable or unfavorable impression of him.

In the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal Poll, how many of those surveyed didn't have an opinion of Hillary Clinton?

One percent.


Clinton's long record and Obama's short one didn't work to her advantage in their battle for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008. She was the familiar favorite of the party establishment; he was a fresh face who promised to change the way politics worked in Washington.

Eight years later, her résumé has only gotten longer. After continued frustrations with government gridlock, however, voters' perspectives on that may have changed, says Democratic pollster Geoffrey Garin, a chief strategist in her 2008 campaign.

"The environment in 2016 is likely to be a much better one for her than the one she faced in 2007 and 2008," Garin says. "People are more likely to put a premium on having enough experience to know how to get things done, how to make Washington work and work better. And they also want somebody who is going to be realistic about how things get done and how results get achieved. People appreciate that knowledge a little bit more than they did in 2008."

That said, history illustrates how difficult it is for one party to hold the White House for a third consecutive term. In the past century, that's happened only twice: when President Franklin Roosevelt won an unprecedented third term in 1940 and when Vice President George H.W. Bush succeeded President Reagan in 1988.

In 2008, Obama was free to run as the candidate who had opposed the Iraq War from the start and would reverse the unpopular policies of Republican George W. Bush. The cascading financial crises in the fall of 2008 stoked the desire to change course.

In 2016, Clinton would have the trickier task of distinguishing herself from Obama without seeming disloyal or riling Democratic voters who still solidly supported him. The close-but-not-too-close calculation could be particularly problematic on foreign policy. After all, Clinton was Obama's top foreign policy adviser for four years. Now, crises are erupting in Syria, Iraq, Ukraine and elsewhere.

Though there are significant differences in their situations, that was a line McCain also had to walk in the 2008 campaign. "It's always a balancing act," says Republican consultant Frank Donatelli, a top aide to McCain in 2008. "We always felt we needed to show loyalty to President Bush, but we also knew if we only got Bush loyalists, we weren't going to win."

"There are a lot of similarities with McCain's relationship to the second Bush and Hillary and Obama, in that Hillary wants some distance from Obama; he's not the shining star he was," says political scientist Steven Schier of Carleton College, co-author of Presidential Elections: Strategies and Structures of American Politics. "On the other hand, she is tied very closely to Obama in the same way Democrats tied McCain closely to Bush in 2008. It's a very delicate thing, and the McCain experience shows how difficult that can be."

Garin contends the situations aren't analogous. "The problem with Bush in 2008 is that people really disagreed with his policies on the economy and especially on Iraq and wanted somebody who would have a different direction," he says. "That's not really what's happening with Obama. There's disappointment in his effectiveness, his ability to make a difference, but it's not policy-oriented except with strong Republican voters."


In her new memoir, Hard Choices, Clinton delineates important differences with Obama and notes that the final decision on controversial policies was always his. He overruled her and other Cabinet members when they urged him to arm moderate Syrian rebels in 2011, she writes. Only in recent weeks has Obama agreed to a plan to vet and train the rebels.

She says she recommended taking a harder line against Russian President Vladimir Putin long before the Russian takeover of Crimea prompted the administration to do just that. She says she expressed concern about the administration's quick pivot against Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak during the Arab Spring uprisings.

In an interview last month about her book, USA TODAY asked whether her world view was different from Obama's – less idealistic, more realistic? "I call myself an idealistic realist," she replied. "But I also know you can't just wish the world to be different."

Asked about income inequality, an issue igniting the left, Clinton cited approvingly the president's record – that is, the record of her husband, Bill Clinton. "I don't think it is foreordained" that inequality will widen in the modern economy, she said in the interview. "I go back and look at what my husband achieved." She cited economic strength, job creation and the number of Americans lifted from poverty. "It's not an accident," she said.

That response underscores the degree to which Hillary Clinton's prospective presidential campaign is hard to compare with any previous one. If she ran and won the nomination, she would not only be the first woman nominated by a major political party but also the first spouse of a president to be nominated.

"One of her central challenges will be charting a course that is different from both President Barack Obama and President Bill Clinton," Gibbs says. "She's got to lay out what Hillary Clinton would be as president."

Neither 2008 nor any other presidential election seems to neatly parallel her challenge. "I see elements of 1988, elements of 1960, elements of 1968," Schier muses. "But none of them fit that well individually."

Brazile, who argues Clinton falls into "her own unique category," says that as a presidential contender, Clinton would need to convince voters who think they know her to look at her through fresh lenses and to believe she has a plan for their future.

"In many ways, she's really running against herself," she says. "And that could be the most formidable one."

Child car heat deaths not unusually high this year

Lori Grisham, USA TODAY Network

The court hearing and pending trial surrounding the June death of 22-month-old Cooper Harris, who died of heatstroke in Georgia after being left in a car for almost seven hours, has brought increased public attention to child deaths caused by vehicular heatstroke.

Contrary to the impression recent coverage may convey, there have actually been fewer U.S. child deaths in hot cars this year than at the same time in 2013.

"Last year on the 6th of July we had already had 20 and this year we have 15," Jan Null, a meteorologist who has tracked child heatstroke deaths for San Francisco State University since 1998, told USA TODAY Network.

"This is not unusual," Amber Rollins, director of KidsAndCars.org, another organization that tracks child heatstroke deaths in cars, said when asked about this year's death toll.

The highest number of deaths occur in July and August, when there are an average of nine deaths each month, according to Null.

"That is what you would expect," he said. "Those are the two hottest months."

An average of 38 children die each year from vehicular heatstroke, according to Null's data. The highest death toll since he began tracking data occurred in 2010 when there were 49 deaths. In 2013, there were a total of 44.

However, both Rollins and Null warned that vehicular heatstroke deaths can occur in any month of the year.

"We try not to focus on one particular time because this can happen in any month and it can happen on days when it's as low as 60 degrees," Rollins said.

"People tend to dismiss this as a danger when they think that it only happens in the hot, Southern states," she added. "This year we had one in New York and on days when it really wasn't particularly hot outside," she said.

Twelve of this year's 15 deaths have been confirmed as caused by heatstroke. Three of them are still pending and waiting on official reports from medical examiners, according to Null. In all likelihood, those three will be also be deemed caused by vehicular heatstroke, Null said. Since 1998, all "probable" heatstroke deaths were ultimately confirmed by medical reports, he said.


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