WASHINGTON — Hillary Clinton retains broad public support for her performance as secretary of state, a sign that President Barack Obama’s struggles abroad and Republican attacks over Benghazi have not been a major drag on her reputation.
Clinton left office 1 1/2 years ago as the most popular outgoing secretary in recent memory, and 59 percent of the public still approve of her tenure, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll this month. That dipped from 68 percent in late 2012, but 67 percent call her a strong leader in the most recent survey.
The findings suggest the public is willing to view Clinton’s term separately from Obama as she attempts to define her legacy with the release on Tuesday of “Hard Choices,” a reflection on her four years overseeing the State Department. The poll found just 41 percent approve of Obama’s handling of foreign policy, an all-time low for the president.
In the book, she carefully draws distinctions between herself and her former boss on a number of international crises that remain unresolved, most notably her push to arm and train Syrian rebel fighters, which was overruled by Obama, according to a copy obtained Saturday by The Washington Post.
Clinton also strikes stronger notes of criticism than Obama toward Russian President Vladimir Putin and touches on the risks of dealing with the Taliban to win release of U.S. soldier Bowe Bergdahl. Obama’s decision to trade five Taliban prisoners for Bergdahl last week earned condemnation from many Republicans.
“More people blame the White House than they blame the secretary of state, and that strikes me as quite appropriate,” said Kori Schake, a former State Department official during the George W. Bush administration. The public “admires Secretary Clinton’s toughness and how much she got out there and tried to do stuff.”
Since leaving office, Clinton has avoided directly criticizing the president, and she praises him in other sections of her book – particularly his decision, which she supported at the time, to authorize a risky Special Operations forces mission that killed Osama bin Laden in 2011. Clinton also writes in the book that she was wrong on her 2002 Senate vote authorizing military action in Iraq, something Obama opposed as an Illinois state senator.
Clinton aides played down any potential division between her and Obama, saying she will emphasize their joint success in placing tougher economic sanctions on Iran and North Korea, moving U.S. armed forces out of Afghanistan and coordinating the global strategy to restore the economy.
“That’s what this book is about,” said Tommy Vietor, a former White House foreign policy spokesman who now is helping on media strategy with Clinton’s book release. “There are clear successes she will point to, and also some areas that are a work in progress.”
Anticipating a Clinton presidential run, Republicans have sought to tie her to Obama’s foreign policy challenges in places such as Russia, Syria, Libya and Egypt while also driving a wedge between the two on other issues, such as the Bergdahl deal.
This spring, the Republican National Committee sent a release tying Clinton to the administration’s stumbling Russia “reset.” It also created a Web video called “Bad Choices,” faulting Clinton’s record at the State Department.
The centerpiece of the GOP attacks on Clinton has been the State Department’s response to the 2012 attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, which left four Americans dead, including Ambassador Chris Stevens.
In “Hard Choices,” Clinton defends the administration’s initial assessment, based on intelligence reports, that the attacks were an outgrowth of regional protests of a YouTube video rather than a pre-planned terrorist attack.
“She’s not going to run away from Obama,” said Brookings Institution defense analyst Michael O’Hanlon. But, he said, Clinton can argue she will lay out her own path once in the White House.
The Post-ABC poll found 50 percent of the public disapproves of the way Clinton handled the response to the Benghazi attack. But the survey also showed that 59 percent of the public believes Clinton has new ideas for the country’s future, and more than half consider her “honest and trustworthy.”
With many of the Obama administration’s foreign policy priorities still unresolved, Clinton has struggled publicly to identify her biggest accomplishment. But supporters say that it is unfair given her role as part of Obama’s “team of rivals” in the first term.
“She devoted herself to being a total team player in support of President Obama,” said Michele Flournoy, former undersecretary of defense for policy at the Pentagon in Obama’s first term. “Part of the reason why people say, ‘What is her individual legacy?’ is that everything she did, she made it the president’s success. She didn’t go out there trying to be a sole actor or collect a set of individual legacy achievements.”
Clinton played a leading role in the administration’s attempt to shift attention and resources to Asia to meet China’s rise as a world power, including re-establishing diplomatic ties to the long-isolated country of Burma – an issue she highlights in the book. Asia analysts have said her departure from the administration has set back that effort.
Former colleagues also point to Clinton’s “people-to-people” diplomatic initiatives, championing the rights of women and girls and promoting Internet freedom under repressive regimes. Detractors minimize such items as “soft power” initiatives that do not add up to a grand legacy.
The contrast with her successor, John Kerry, was striking after he quickly launched an all-out effort last year to pursue a peace accord between Israelis and Palestinians. That push was unsuccessful, but some of Clinton’s critics – including former President Jimmy Carter – have praised Kerry for being willing to put his credibility on the line for a longshot deal. The White House was less enthusiastic.
“Let’s give him lots and lots of points for telling the White House, ‘Yeah, yeah, I don’t care what you think,’ “ said Danielle Pletka, vice president of the conservative American Enterprise Institute. “That’s not what Mrs. Clinton said.”