Hillary Clinton's strategic mistake (and Barack Obama's brilliant chess move)

Barack Obama's a tough read. It's honestly hard to tell whether he's been good at his job or horrific.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor on

This week in ZDNet Government, we begin our in-depth political coverage of the upcoming 2012 election cycle.

Poor Hillary Clinton. Had she opted out of the Obama administration's early reality distortion effect, she might have been a front-running challenger for the 2012 Democratic presidential nomination.

Instead, she's probably retiring from public office at the end of President Obama's current term.

So what went so wrong for Hillary?

As we all know, Mrs. Clinton's 2008 presidential campaign team was -- essentially -- surprised by Barack Obama's early strength. They all assumed it was "her turn," and that she'd get the 2008 nomination almost by default.

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By the time her team stopped their infighting and figured out they had a credible threat from Team Obama, Mr. Obama had taken a commanding lead. Hillary's team came from behind and almost caught up. But they'd waited just a little too long to get their game faces on, and lost to the "Yes we can" bandwagon.

So there she was, out of the running. At this point, both she and Mr. Obama had some chess moves to think through. Did Mr. Obama want to consider her for his VP choice? History says, "No." Did she want to stay in the national limelight? History says, "Oh, yeah, baby, oh yeah."

And so, rather than trying for another Senate run or teaching at some prestigious university for the duration (or picking up bajillion dollar consulting gigs, like Bill's been doing), she became Secretary of State.

It's quite an accomplishment. She went from First Lady of the United States, to Senator from the Great State of New York, to Secretary of State of the United States of America. It's one of the strongest political careers for any politician, and is probably the single strongest political career for any American woman in the history of the country.

If Barack Obama governed like he campaigned, all rousing speeches and great inspiration, Hillary's decision to jump on board his administration might have been a rock solid one.

But Mr. Obama hasn't governed like he campaigned.

Mr. Obama has had a decidely uninspiring presidency, from a health care reform victory where the cure is probably worse than the disease, to a new third war, to a jobs situation still in the crapper, to issues of privacy, security, and TSA indignities.

Only history will be able to tell whether President Obama's moves after the 2009 financial crisis turned things around that would have otherwise led to another Great Depression. But we all have experienced the Great Recession and Obama-the-President is far more universally disappointing than Obama-the-Campaigner.

When Barack Obama took the office on January 20, 2009, he seemed politically invulnerable. Strategically, it made sense from Hillary's point of view to become part of that team. After all, it was likely he'd run again in 2012, handily get re-elected, and there would really be no room for Mrs. Clinton if she wasn't part of the Obama administration.

But Barack Obama is politically vulnerable. Very, very vulnerable.

In today's political environment, there would have been room for the old Hillary (the one untarnished by being part of the Obama administration) to have ridden in to save the day. She could have claimed ownership of finally doing health care right. She could have claimed ownership of the economy. She could have claimed ownership in international affairs, unmarred by the actual sausage-making that is international affairs, unmarred by the revelations of the Wikileaks documents (there's your ZDNet tech angle!), and unmarred by the new war in Libya.

Mrs. Clinton could have made the case that we gave Obama a chance, but now it's time for the grown-ups to do the job right. Heck, given that her campaign was one of the original sources of the nutty birther controversy, she could have even questioned the President's right to be President.

Now, of course, she doesn't have that opportunity. She made the wrong chess move. Mr. Obama, in retrospect, made the absolutely perfect political move. By keeping friends close and enemies closer, he brought Hillary into the fold and -- very effectively -- took her out of play for 2012.

Sure, Hillary could still run, but she'd now be battling her own record as well as Mr. Obama's. Given that Presidents who want the nomination generally get the nomination, Hillary's chances -- now -- are almost nonexistent.

So that was her strategic mistake and Mr. Obama's brilliant chess move. How could she have known that Mr. Obama wouldn't be as popular now as he was then?

Hmm...perhaps we have to give President Obama more credit for strategic thinking than we may have in the past. He certainly played the Hillary game of thrones to his advantage.

Barack Obama's a tough read. It's honestly hard to tell whether he's been good at his job or horrific. That's his fault. Because while it's very difficult to tangibly determine whether we'd have been better off with Mr. McCain than Mr. Obama these last few years, it's absolutely clear that Barack Obama has dropped the ball when it comes to inspiring the world.

And that, more than anything else, may well be Barack Obama's most serious strategic mistake.

By the way, some of the very coolest chess-related photos I've seen come from a simple Flickr search. The chess image used above was courtesy Flickr user orangelimey.

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