Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Barack Obama did Hillary Clinton a huge favor

By Julian Zelizer, CNN Contributor
August 20, 2013 -- Updated 1046 GMT (1846 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Hillary Clinton speaking out more on liberal causes like voting rights
  • Julian Zelizer says President Obama has made it safe for liberals to assert themselves
  • Republicans have moved right, allowing Democrats' liberal views to seem more moderate, he says
  • Zelizer: If she runs, Clinton could be an outspoken voice for liberal policies

Editor's note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" and "Governing America."

(CNN) -- Hillary Clinton has started to re-enter the public spotlight, very possibly beginning a new stage of her career that may lead to the presidential election of 2016.

In recent appearances, Clinton seems energized and spirited. She has already begun to talk about issues like women's rights and voting rights, causes that have animated her for decades. Gone is the constrained demeanor that turned off many potential supporters in previous years. The real Hillary Clinton seems to be emerging.

Republicans are instantly attacking as might be expected. Former House speaker and presidential candidate Newt Gingrich, an arch nemesis of the Clintons in the 1990s, warned that she was promoting "left-wing ideas" that would lead to her defeat.

Julian Zelizer
Julian Zelizer

Those kinds of attacks won't have the same weight as they did eight years ago. The former first lady, senator, and secretary of state is in excellent position to run the kind of campaign that is true to her history, in large part because of the impact that President Obama has had in the past six years.

Democrats are more confident about throwing their support behind a candidate who stands proudly for the key tenets of the liberal tradition: a belief that government can help solve social problems in the United States.

Unlike her husband, who felt in the early 1990s that he had to emphasize his centrist, new Democratic credentials, President Obama has opened the doors for a Democrat to build their campaigns on the tradition of the New Deal and Great Society, rather than running away from that legacy.

How did President Obama make this happen? Most important, the president has been far more assertive in his willingness to use the federal government to address big domestic challenges than many Democrats who preceded him. The Affordable Care Act put into place a large series of regulations aimed at providing better and more accessible care for a health care system whose costs had spun out of control.

Clinton project won't be a 'valentine'
Barro: Benghazi not a big deal for her
'Slap Hillary' online game causes uproar

The Dodd-Frank Act provided a regulatory framework to prevent the kind of risky behavior that led to the 2008 financial crash, and the economic stimulus provided government money to help get the economy moving again.

Since his re-election in 2012, an important mark for Democrats that these kinds of policies don't result in inevitable defeat, Obama has also fought back against the austerity drives of the GOP, defending key government programs from the scalpel. After the Supreme Court weakened the Voting Rights Act, Obama vowed to protect the law and Attorney General Eric Holder announced that he would not allow states to violate rights. Though hesitant at first, President Obama has embraced the major social movement of our day—gay rights—taking a more progressive stand than any president before him.

In short, President Obama has broken an important barrier for Clinton, or any other Democrat, by allowing members of his party to be proud of their ideals and challenging the notion that the only way for their party to win is to agree with the right.

President Obama has also shifted the center of political debate by driving Republicans further to the right ever since the 2010 midterms. Tea party Republicans have placed immense pressure on the Republican leadership to take harder line stances on issues like the budget.

Republicans moved so far to the right they have made liberal Democrats seem much more moderate. Liberal Democrats, who back in the 1990s could still be attacked as "the far left" can appear more "reasonable" to the mainstream when compared with conservative Republicans. The tea party has also opened the door to Clinton, as Obama discovered with Mitt Romney in 2012, to build a campaign that argues the GOP is too extreme to govern.

In a very different way, President Obama has created a huge opportunity for Hillary Clinton because of his failures. Despite his accomplishments, he has failed to make progress on a number of important issues that Clinton can embrace as central to her platform, setting her up to be a leader who can complete and move beyond what President Obama has started.

The most important is the economic insecurity of the middle class. The sluggish economic recovery and historically high rates of inequality, which Obama himself laments but has not been able to reverse, give Clinton a potent theme to run on. Gingrich might call such rhetoric left wing, but for millions of Americans it will strike the exact right chord.

Clinton, who demonstrated her skill on the international stage, also has a chance to address some of the disappointments with President Obama's foreign policy.

Many Democrats are watching the events in Egypt, deeply concerned that the unraveling of democracy will undermine the kinds of promises that Obama made about liberal internationalism and the ability of diplomacy to solve global problems without resort to war. Many Democrats are also unhappy with the ongoing revelations about how Obama continued with President Bush's war on terror programs, making them even more robust with extensive NSA surveillance and drone attacks.

Unlike most of the Democrats who are considering entering into the campaign, Clinton now has an extensive record of experience on foreign policy that will bolster her credentials as she talks about what she would do to correct these problems. If she tackles these issues effectively, she could energize support from liberals in her party who previously dismissed her as the candidate of the status quo. Even if President Obama's approval ratings decline further, Clinton has an opportunity to win public support using the framework Obama put forward.

Hillary Clinton now has an excellent chance to put together the kind of presidential campaign that was elusive in 2008, one that could very well give the nation its first female president. In the coming months she will have to decide whether she wants to take this step or to instead focus on her work as a global leader outside government. But the opportunity for her is there and Obama, who once was engaged with her in some of the most bitter fights that Democrats have seen among their own in many years, has changed the terms of the debate in ways that will greatly benefit her.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Julian Zelizer

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0242 GMT (1042 HKT)
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1709 GMT (0109 HKT)
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2345 GMT (0745 HKT)
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2113 GMT (0513 HKT)
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
December 10, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1023 GMT (1823 HKT)
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 0639 GMT (1439 HKT)
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2020 GMT (0420 HKT)
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1456 GMT (2256 HKT)
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1453 GMT (2253 HKT)
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 2253 GMT (0653 HKT)
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1550 GMT (2350 HKT)
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2123 GMT (0523 HKT)
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 1426 GMT (2226 HKT)
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
ADVERTISEMENT