Multiple close allies of President Barack Obama believe his former CIA Director and Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta might be taking shots at him as part of an effort to help Hillary Clinton’s potential 2016 presidential bid.
The critique the president should have done more to fight the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad before ISIS gained power in that country echoes one of the only attacks Clinton, Obama’s former secretary of state, has leveled against her former boss in recent months. In the mid 1990s, Panetta served as White House chief of staff to Clinton’s husband.
Because of his ties to the Clintons, some of Obama’s allies suspect his attacks on the administration may be designed to help Hillary in 2016.
“It’s not like his ultimate loyalties ever lied with the president,” a longtime Obama aide and former White House official told Business Insider when asked about Panetta. “He had a long history in the party predating the president, and that’s not where his ultimate loyalties lie.”
Panetta’s pre-existing relationship with the Clintons isn’t the only reason some of those close to Obama think his criticism of the president may be designed to help a hypothetical Hillary bid. Clinton and Panetta’s unflattering appraisals of the president’s Syria policy are remarkably similar. By making the argument Obama’s mishandling of the Assad regime contributed to the rise of ISIS, Clinton and her allies could be distancing her from those who might attempt to say she botched the situation in Syria while at the State Department.
“There’s been chatter among Obama people about it,” a former Obama campaign operative told Business Insider. “There’s the sense that this is incredibly unhelpful to the president’s agenda, there’s a sense that it’s incredibly self-serving, and there is this sense that he might be looking to offer backdoor help to Hillary.”
The longtime Obama aide and former White House official said the thing about these attacks on the president that most upsets Obama’s allies is that Panetta is making policy arguments he didn’t articulate while he was in the president’s Cabinet.
“A lot of people are taking issue because they don’t feel like he was particularly public with that argument at the time,” the aide said. “He didn’t really drive these points at the time and so trying to score points now to get his book out there is a little bit gratuitous, particularly a month before an important election.”
The former Obama campaign operative said they think Panetta’s attempts to help Hillary Clinton might backfire.
“There is a suspicion he’s trying to provide some cover for her, but there’s also the feeling that this cover won’t ultimately be helpful in a Democratic primary. Democratic primary voters are not in line with Panetta and Hillary Clinton on foreign policy and, in the long run, I think that smart observers believe that this could do her more harm than good,” the operative explained. “A year from now, or six months from now when the campaign is more underway, I’m not sure that Hillary Clinton will want to be tagged as a hawk and as someone who was advocating for more intervention in Syria and the Middle East.”
The operative went on to say similar arguments hurt Clinton when she last ran for president in 2008 and lost the primary to Obama.
“That was one of the many things that doomed her 2008 campaign and it has the potential to doom her 2016 campaign and remind voters of why they turned against her in 2008,” said the operative.
However, the aide suggested helping Clinton might not be the only reasons Panetta is attacking Obama. They said he might have “two priorities” as he takes potshots at the president. Along with helping Clinton, the aide speculated Panetta’s first goal might be making money and compared him to President George W. Bush’s former press secretary Scott McClellan, who wrote a scathing account of his time at the White House in 2008.
“Number one is selling books right?” the aide said. “The Scott McClellan strategy that towards the end of an administration, approval ratings are going down, the only way to sell books is be contentious.”
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