Does Obama Fear a Hillary Clinton Primary Challenge?

Imagine how easy it would be for Hillary Clinton to mount a campaign against the president.

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 If there was ever a sign that the White House is nervous about 2012, it’s the news that a covey of senior White House aides and Democratic National Committee operatives are headed to Chicago to open President Barack Obama’s re-election headquarters—nearly two years in advance of the election.

Typically, an incumbent president hangs back, raises money, and keeps the presidential politicking under the cover of his official duties. Obama and his team, reacting to the results of the 2010 election and the mood of the country, correctly understand this is a luxury not available to them. But since the GOP field is, right now, wide open, it’s a curious move.

Larry Sabato, the left-leaning political analyst from the University of Virginia has identified almost a score of Republican elected officials, former officer holders and leftover candidates from the last race who can legitimately be thought of as potential candidates in 2012. With a field that big, it will be a long and probably bloody road from the Iowa cornfields and the mountains of New Hampshire to Tampa, Fla., and the GOP nomination. Obama could just sit back, work on redefining his presidency, and let other party chew itself up fighting for the right to run against him. Instead, he’s pulling the trigger on his own campaign well in advance. What’s going on? [Read more about the 2012 presidential election.]

It could be that Obama’s political team has looked at the polls and realized he needs to engage in active political efforts to win back the support of independents, who handed him the keys to the White House in 2008 but who gave the speaker’s gavel to Ohio Republican John Boehner and strengthened the hand of the Senate Republican Leader, Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell, in 2010. But independents are not allowed to vote in party primaries in many states—meaning they’ll be focused on the general election from start to finish.

That also means they likely won’t make up their mind about how they are going to vote until they know who the GOP nominee is—unless they have already decided to vote against Obama. In that case, their votes generally aren’t up for grabs, now or later. They’re already gone.

There is, however, another possibility—and it’s an intriguing one: that Obama has a sense he is going to have to beat a motivated, well-financed, and perhaps even well-established opponent in the Democratic primary who comes at him, not from the left, but from the right.

To illustrate the point, imagine how easy it would be for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton—who most people expected to win the Democratic nomination and the election last time around—to mount such a campaign were she to opt to run. It would not be hard for her to position herself as the candidate of “the sensible center,” straddling the middle between the over-spending, over-taxing left and the Tea Party right. 

Hillary, of course, has said she is not running. Many times. Still, her husband Bill is the only Democrat to win two presidential elections since Franklin Roosevelt. And he was only able to accomplish that by pivoting sharply to the right in the middle of his first term. [Check out a roundup of political cartoons on Obama.]

Obama is much more heavily invested in the left than Clinton ever was—meaning he has far less room to maneuver and, based on the way he has conducted his presidency during its first two years, considerably less political skill. He has to stay on the left in order to keep his personal political base motivated. He has to continue to pander to them in ways the rest of the country rejects and which, as matters of policy go, have been failures thus far. Hence the exodus of some of his top aides to Chicago. They know he’s vulnerable, but from the right—meaning they have to get his political operation up and running now in order to collect commitments and crowd out his potential opponents. His renomination depends on it.

  • Read more about the 2012 presidential election.
  • Check out a roundup of political cartoons on Obama.
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