On September 12, as I watched live videos of the President speaking in the White House Rose Garden about the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, I was struck by a moment that you won’t find in the transcript. This image didn’t make the White House YouTube channel’s cut of the speech, and it didn’t come up in debate.
But I think that it is important nonetheless. So I will tell you that after pivoting out of the word “America,” the President rested his hand on the back of Secretary Clinton’s blue blazer for the brief time it took them to climb the steps to the colonnade.
More than a gesture of chivalry, it was a signal of support that I was reminded of when Obama stood on the debate stage Tuesday night and said, “She works for me.” That wasn’t a mere attempt to slip a former rival back into her binder sleeve; it was the strategic act of a party standard-bearer.
As the possibility of Clinton 2016 hugs the horizon like a headband, the President sent a clear message by keeping the “blame Hillary” card in his inner pocket (no doubt, to shred later).
“I take responsibility,” Clinton told CNN earlier that day, referring to the consulate attack. “I’m in charge of the State Department’s 60,000-plus people all over the world, 275 posts.”
President Obama sacrificed an immediate way out of a tricky issue for his campaign. In return, and for the long-term, he lessened the possibility of blight on Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy record. Four years from now, Team Clinton can revive the sound bite, “She works for me,” in response to accusations that the Secretary of State botched Libya.
An act of strategy, but also a very presidential act—because nobody knows as well as the president the emotional burden that leadership brings. Indeed, Obama’s refusal to let Clinton be solely accountable for the loss of life in Libya was forecast by that minute gesture in the Rose Garden.
The fury in the president’s eyes when he told Mitt Romney in debate that the suggestion his administration “played politics” and “misled” the public in the wake of attacks was “offensive” says it all. You don’t know, how could you know?
In the 2003 documentary, The Fog of War, the late Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara is asked, “When you talk about the responsibility for something like the Vietnam War, whose responsibility is it?” He answers, “It’s the president’s responsibility.”
The epilogue of the film contains another moment that transcripts do not do justice. A reader knows that McNamara is asked, “Do you feel in any way responsible for the War? Do you feel guilty?”—but only the viewer can hear the weight in his voice when he responds, “I don’t want to go any further with this discussion.”
The Obama of 2012 is not the Obama of 2008. In a lifetime spent learning, I challenge anyone to say that they’re not intellectually more equipped than they were four years ago. I am confident that the President has come to understand the weight of leadership at a level previously unprecedented in his experience.
The mandate to empathize, and the effort it requires, is something that Clinton, Obama and McNamara know—but relatively few others. Most of us will not be in a position to experience an equivalent weight of leadership in our lifetime.
Only thoughtful extrapolation based on our own responsibilities is a gateway to understanding the sheer enormity of what a president faces—and which candidates are up to the task.
I sit writing this column on the fourth anniversary of a high school classmate’s death. I was president of my senior class, and I spent a lot of time that fall wondering what it means to be a good leader in a time of grief.
More than an initiation into adulthood, this reflection was an initiation into my own mind. College has further shaped my opinions on death—the apolitical—and on leadership, which is both the root and bud of politics. The more time that passes, the better equipped I am to comprehend what it means to truncate life at 17.
Then, I postponed a visit to Bowdoin to attend the funeral. Now, I find myself on campus—again a senior—and even stronger in my belief that leadership is about empathy and love.
Loss is something we’d rather not know. When I watch the president speak I watch with a whisper in my ear, and a hand on my back at once as ghostly and tangible as a teenager’s glimmer of conviction.
Hillary Clinton works for Obama, but Obama must work for all of us.