Joan Vennochi

Clinton still showing her survival instincts

By Joan Vennochi
Globe Columnist / April 3, 2011

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SECRETARY OF STATE Hillary Rodham Clinton is more popular than President Obama, the onetime rival who grudgingly dubbed her “likable enough’’ on the New Hampshire campaign trail.

According to a new Gallup poll, 66 percent of those surveyed have a favorable view of Clinton, giving her a higher rating than the president (54 percent favorable) or vice president (46 percent favorable). The Gallup poll was conducted from March 25 to 27, while the United States was actively involved in its controversial Libya mission; other polling is even more negative about Obama.

As Libya goes, so goes Obama, and Clinton, too. But her positive image — for now — reflects the natural talents and survival instincts of a woman who never let the Hillary-haters get her down.

Her performance as secretary of state defies some of the stereotypes about how a Clinton operates. It hasn’t been all about Hillary — or, about Bill. Once she joined Obama’s team, her tenure was devoted to shaping and promoting Obama’s message. The former president also stayed mostly out of the headlines, although he did advocate a no-fly zone in Libya before his wife or her boss.

After last week’s appearance on “Meet the Press,’’ there were cackles over how Clinton interrupted Defense Secretary Robert Gates when host David Gregory asked if Libya represents America’s “vital interests’’ and Gates answered “no.’’ But it was less rude interruption than politically savvy redirection: Libya plays a critical role in the region. If US allies feel threatened by what’s happening there, we have an obligation to help them, just as our allies helped us in Afghanistan. That’s the spin of a team player.

Being secretary of state also showcases other Clinton strengths.

Once Clinton agreed to the idea of a no-fly zone for Libya, she was able to build a coalition of international support.

In signing on to it, she allied herself with Samantha Power, the Obama foreign policy adviser who called her “a monster’’ during the Clinton-Obama Democratic nomination showdown. That shows grace on Clinton’s part and unwillingness to let ego get in the way of policy.

Also important was Clinton’s willingness to acknowledge lessons learned from her husband’s slowness in committing US military aid to Bosnia. Those lessons speak to the experience she highlighted as a presidential candidate.

Rivals, including Obama, dismissed it as resume inflation by a former first lady. In the end, it did not sway voters attracted to Obama’s fresh face and easy demeanor.

It is fascinating to rerun the clip from that seminal 2008 New Hampshire primary debate, when Clinton is asked what she would say to voters who like her resume, but like her less than Obama.

“Well, that hurts my feelings, but I’ll try to go on,’’ she replied, adding about her opponent, “He’s very likable, I agree with that.’’

“You’re likeable enough, Hillary, ’’ responded Obama, barely glancing up from his notes, in a moment that helps explain why he lost that primary to Clinton.

Clinton’s follow-up is also worth reviewing: “The most important question is who is ready to be president on day one,’’ she said. “The problems are huge . . . The stakes could not be higher . . . In 2000, we ended up with a president everyone wanted to have a beer with.’’

In 2008, Obama won not so much because of his drinking buddy potential, but because voters liked his low-key, cerebral style. They were also sick of Bush and tired of the Clintons.

Once the election was over, Obama and Clinton put aside any bruised feelings. Choosing a former adversary as secretary of state was a good decision for both.

It turns out that HRC is an MVP and you don’t need a bracket to figure that out.

Clinton recently ruled out serving another term as secretary of state if Obama wins reelection. She also said she does not want to be secretary of defense, vice president — or president.

If that changes, she will be more than ready from day one. Voters who liked her resume in 2008 might also find her more than likable enough.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at