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How Hillary will try and distinguish herself from Obama

Adam Bettcher / Getty

One fact that Hillary Clinton must be extremely aware of is that presidential candidates from a party that's held the White House for two or more terms tend to lose: they've only won 2 of 9 such elections in the postwar period. Even when incumbent presidents have been quite popular in their final years — as Dwight Eisenhower was in 1960, and Bill Clinton in 2000 — their would-be successors only managed about a tie in the popular vote, and lost the electoral college. This time around, President Obama is unpopular, Congress is unproductive and polarized, the economy remains underwhelming, and the headlines from overseas grow grimmer by the day. So how is Clinton going to try and make the case that Democrats should keep the presidency?

Judging by an interview posted Sunday by the Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg, mostly on foreign policy, she'll argue for the necessity of restoring America's greatness.

"Great nations need organizing principles," she said. For her, those principles would be "peace, progress, and prosperity" — which happens to be a slogan her husband's White House used to describe its record. "We don't even tell our own story very well these days," she said. When Goldberg offered that "defeating fascism and communism is a pretty big deal," she exclaimed, "That's how I feel!" She added, "This might be an old-fashioned idea — but I'm about to find out, in more ways than one."

This effort would involve extensive and active US "engagement" overseas. "In the world in which we are living right now, vacuums get filled by some pretty unsavory players," she said. She argued for "containment" of jihadist groups, staked out a position a bit to Obama's right on Iran (though she still supports the ongoing nuclear negotiations), and emphasized that she supported arming rebels in Syria, something Obama has resisted.

But Clinton emphasized that economic prosperity at home would be necessary to sell the American public on a major overseas role. "Americans deserve to feel secure in their own lives, in their own middle-class aspirations, before you go to them and say, 'We're going to have to enforce navigable sea lanes in the South China Sea,'" she said. "You've got to take care of your home first."

Deciding what to say about Obama, who is broadly unpopular while still well-liked by Democrats, will be a challenge for Clinton's campaign. But even many core Democratic supporters will admit to a sense of disappointment and malaise. During the interview, Clinton seemed to float one possible way she'd handle this — she'd argue that Obama was a competent, hard-working steward during very difficult times.

"I think he is cautious because he knows what he inherited, both the two wars and the economic front, and he has expended a lot of capital and energy trying to pull us out of the hole we're in," she said. She continued: "The economy is not growing, the middle class is not feeling like they are secure, and we are living in a time of gridlock and dysfunction that is just frustrating and outraging."

Her implication, on both foreign and domestic policy, is that Obama didn't finish the job — and that she's the person who can do it. Clinton is clearly worried about being too closely associated with an administration the public increasingly views as a letdown. And she knows very well that when the public thinks things aren't going well, a prospective presidential candidate has to be able to promise change.

Every candidate running in difficult times has to make a case about how they'll fix what ails America — whether it's through inspirational rhetoric or a new policy agenda. While Clinton has suggested a few different foreign policies, she seems set to argue that it's mainly her leadership that's needed to put the US back on track. The question is — will anyone believe her?