Elections

Clinton’s skills would be tested from the very first minute as an embattled president

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton greets supporters at a campaign event at University of North Carolina at Charlotte, Oct. 23, 2016.
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton greets supporters at a campaign event at University of North Carolina at Charlotte, Oct. 23, 2016. AP

If she wins, President Hillary Clinton’s troubles would start before she was even sworn into office.

Most Americans don’t trust her. Many lawmakers vow not to work with her. One already has floated the idea of impeachment. GOP congressional investigations are likely, adding to a new FBI investigation involving her personal email system that could drag on. Her own party would pull in different directions.

How could she govern? Clinton’s three decades of experience in government, punctuated by emails providing revealing looks at how she operates behind the scenes and interviews with people who’ve worked with her or against her give some clues as to how she’d work in the Oval Office even in such a hostile environment.

She does all of her homework and wants to know everything. She can compartmentalize her feelings enough to work with enemies if necessary. She’s more willing to socialize with members of Congress than President Barack Obama has been. She relies on staff, sometimes even for personal things. She also can be very insecure, keeps to a select few advisers, doesn’t trust the media and worries constantly about her privacy.

One sign of how she might operate: As a senator from New York immediately after leaving the White House, Clinton earned a surprising reputation of working with Republicans on Capitol Hill.

In her first speech as senator, Clinton said she’d learned from her unsuccessful effort as first lady to pass a national health care law. “I learned some valuable lessons about the legislative process, the importance of bipartisan cooperation and the wisdom of taking small steps to get a big job done,” she said.

Clinton, indeed, worked with Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. — who had served as a manager in the impeachment case against President Bill Clinton — to allow National Guard and reserve troops to buy insurance policies in Tricare, the military health care system.

Republicans and Democrats expect she would do the same as president — meeting with lawmakers on their home turf on Capitol Hill and inviting them to the White House and Camp David.

“She will make it a significant part of her outreach to Congress by spending time with members, cultivating the members,” said Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif.

“I think she will be more in tune to needs of Congress than Obama has been,” said Ken Duberstein, who served as President Ronald Reagan’s chief of staff in his second term. “She will make it a priority to work with them when possible. She will treat Congress as more than an adversary.”

Even some supporters attribute Obama’s failure to achieve all that he promised to his detached personality. Not only didn’t he socialize with lawmakers, he also didn’t lobby them on his proposals.

“Obama doesn’t call anyone, and he’s not close to almost anyone,” said Neera Tanden, former domestic policy director for Obama’s campaign, told New York magazine in 2012. “It’s stunning that he’s in politics, because he really doesn’t like people.”

All this as other voices in the GOP push for tougher stands against Clinton’s presidency.

Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala., has already suggested impeachment hearings against her. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said he would try to block any Clinton Supreme Court nominee. Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Richard Burr, R-N.C., said the Senate might leave the nation’s high court with only eight members if Clinton were elected. And Republicans are eager to launch more investigations.

“It’s a target-rich environment,” House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, told The Washington Post. “Even before we get to Day One, we’ve got two years’ worth of material already lined up.”

Yet Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, an outspoken conservative who supports Donald Trump, said he could work with a President Clinton.

“I’ve sat across the table with Hillary Clinton eye to eye, and when you’re working outside of staff and outside of the press she is somebody I can work with,” he said this summer.

And Rep. Lou Barletta, R-Pa., a Trump supporter, said the two sides could pursue both their agendas.

“When it comes to the Affordable Care Act, national security, she’s going to have to work with House Republicans if she wants anything accomplished,” he said. “We’ve been working on tax reform. We’ve been working on securing the borders. I don’t see us throwing all that out the window, when we haven’t had an opportunity to get it signed with President Obama.”

At the same time, Clinton would face competing pressures from her own party.

A handful of moderate Democrats from more rural states facing re-election, including Sens. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, will want her to advocate a more centrist message.

Yet Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., independent Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Chuck Schumer of New York, who is expected to become Senate Democratic leader next year, would be pushing Clinton to the left, pulling her away from the middle and compromise with the Republicans.

Duberstein said Clinton would first need to build consensus for her policies across the nation to gain much-needed trust and persuade lawmakers.

“You get the buy-in from citizens. It’s the only way to build consensus,” he said. “The job of president is not building consensus in Washington but in the country. Washington will follow.”

That could be a tough task for Clinton. As president, she’d have to sell her agenda without Trump as her foil. And she herself concedes she is not a natural politician like her husband or Obama.

“Whatever reasons they have for mistrusting her . . . there’s nothing she can do to persuade them through words,” said William Galston, a former White House adviser to Bill Clinton who’s now a senior fellow at the center-left Brookings Institution, a think tank. “It has to be through deeds.”

If her public skills are well known, her private behavior also has been laid bare by the release of thousands of emails that offer signs of how she’d act in the White House.

She seeks additional information, accepts unsolicited advice and wants to be more involved. But she is also worried about being left out and has a hard time apologizing. 

Six months after the news of her private email system became public, for example, Clinton was still having trouble speaking to her actions.

“Everyone wants her to apologize. And she should,” top adviser Neera Tanden said in one email. “Apologies are like her Achilles’ heel.”

The emails show how Clinton relies on staff, even for something as personal as the illness of a close friend’s son.

When Vice President Joe Biden’s son was quietly admitted to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in 2015, an email about his hospitalization went through three staffers before Jake Sullivan, a campaign foreign policy adviser, talked with Biden aide Kathy Chung and alerted Clinton’s top aide Huma Abedin.

“Huma, I think you should reach out to her and let her (Chung) know HRC wants to pass on her thoughts and prayers,” Sullivan wrote.

The vice president’s son died less than two weeks later of brain cancer.

P.J. Crowley, a veteran of the Bill Clinton White House and top aide in the Hillary Clinton State Department, said the former secretary had empowered her staff and would likely do the same for her Cabinet secretaries.

“Some suggested that this kind of more democratic approach diminished her. But she believed it was just a management necessity,” he said. “There were so many big issues in play that one person couldn’t do it all.”

Jonathan Allen, co-author of the book HRC: State Secrets and the Rebirth of Hillary Clinton, described her as “very secretive” with an inner circle that is extremely insular.

“She pays a lot of attention to the details of every plan, proposal or briefing book put in front of her, meaning her staff has to be on its toes at all times,” he said.

“But even as she keeps information close to her vest, she also understands the need to have buy-in from various stakeholders to get things done, a lesson learned in part from her failed effort to win a new health care law as first lady. You could expect an approach to policymaking in which she tries to get government, the private sector and the academic and nonprofit sectors working together.”

Clinton thinks she could lure Republicans in with two ideas:

▪ A criminal justice plan that calls for better relations between police and communities, an end to the large number of people in jails and prisons, and help for criminals once they are released. Sen. John Cornyn of Texas and Chaffetz are two Republicans who have been interested in tackling the issue.

▪ A five-year $275 billion infrastructure plan that includes fixing roads and bridges, public transit, freight rail, airports, broadband internet and water systems. Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., have expressed interest in infrastructure.

A dozen Democrats, Republicans and special interest groups McClatchy interviewed also think the two sides might be able to work together on long-sought-after changes to the tax code as well as programs to combat poverty, both of which are priorities of House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis.

The proposals are still fraught with potential sources of disagreement. On infrastructure, for example, Democrats want to pay for it with higher taxes. Republicans don’t.

It’s unclear whether Clinton’s other two priorities could win GOP support: a rewrite of the nation’s immigration laws in the first 100 days and a constitutional amendment to overturn a Supreme Court case that led to more outside unregulated spending in elections.

Lesley Clark and Kevin G. Hall contributed to this article.

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