Obama walks fine line defending Clinton

Story highlights

  • President Barack Obama is defending Hillary Clinton over email server questions
  • He's taking a largely legalistic approach

Washington (CNN)As President Barack Obama works to keep a Democrat in the White House, his public assessments of Hillary Clinton remain constrained politically and legally, a scenario that's unlikely to change anytime soon.

Much of Obama's acclaim for the Democratic presidential front-runner remains couched in generic terms about her tenure as his top diplomat, broad enough to offer praise while not alienating the significant number of young people who are voting for her rival. And his replies to questions about her use of a personal email server while serving as his secretary of state remain carefully crafted as his administration investigates the set-up.
    It's never been a secret that most of Obama's closest allies regard Clinton as the more obvious caretaker of his legacy, much of which has been built through executive action and therefore will rely on his Oval Office replacement to maintain.
    But the President himself has taken pains in the last year to suppress any public leanings in the Democratic nomination contest, meeting privately with both Clinton and rival Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders while maintaining official neutrality on the race.
    He did vote in the Illinois primary -- meaning he plainly prefers one candidate over the other -- and hasn't been hesitant about defending his former secretary of state against political attacks and allegations of wrongdoing. But in doing so, his hands remain tied.
    The latest example came this weekend, when Obama again insisted that Clinton hadn't put the country at risk by using a private email server during her time at the State Department.
    "I continue to believe that she has not jeopardized America's national security," Obama said during a Fox News interview, going on to praise her job as secretary of state.
    Even in those remarks Obama noted he needed to be "careful" in what he said, since his administration continues an investigation into Clinton's email arrangements. He stopped short of declaring that Clinton hadn't broken any laws, a conclusion that his Justice Department has yet to make.
    The White House said Monday that Obama hasn't received any confidential briefings on the examination into Clinton's emails, nor has he requested one, with the goal of allowing investigators to work unimpeded by political concerns.
    Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, said Obama's views on whether Clinton trafficked in classified information on her private email stemmed solely from public reporting on the case.
    "The President was asked a specific question and he shared his view based on public reporting on this that has been done," Earnest said. "The opinion that really matters is the opinion of the independent investigators that are taking a close look at this."
    Republicans, who see the emails as a major vulnerability for Clinton, have vowed to press the issue. As long as investigators continue their work, however, Obama will remain hampered in defending Clinton from the expected attacks, even if she becomes the Democratic nominee.
    For now, Obama remains similarly tight-lipped on most aspects of Clinton's record, even as it comes under fire from Sanders and his campaign.
    In remaining neutral, Obama and the White House hope to tamp down on accusations the Democratic establishment is shutting out Sanders, a charge his supporters have wielded in turning out votes. But it also prevents the party's most popular figure from defending Clinton in much detail.
    "There's a difference in emphasis between the two fine Democrats who are running for the presidency. There are tactical differences in the assessment of how change comes about," Obama said during a fundraiser in San Francisco Friday.
    But "there's not this big ideological divide among Democrats," he argued.
    Even as he downplays the divisions, however, the President wasn't shying away from offering an implicit criticism of Clinton's record during Sunday's interview.
    Offering some fuel for Republicans looking to poke holes in Clinton's time at the State Department, Obama said his biggest failure as president was not to plan for the aftermath of toppling Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
    The intervention in Libya -- which Obama noted was the "right thing to do" -- came at the strong urging of Clinton.
    In the five years since demonstrations broke out against Gaddafi, the country has spiraled into lawless anarchy. And while the creation of a unity government in December is offering hope that some stability may be possible, the country is still something of a "black hole," according to one Western diplomat.
    Gen. David Rodriguez, commander of U.S. Africa Command, describes it as a failed state that has become a way station for foreign fighters, weapons and illegal migrants that is feeding instability in Syria and Iraq and lacks the government institutions or social cohesion that would help stabilize it.
    In testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee in March, he estimated it would take "10 years or so" to stabilize the country.
    In the meantime, as the anti-ISIS coalition has made gains in Syria and Iraq, the number of foreign fighters going to Libya has swelled to "around 4,000 to 6,000," Rodriguez said.
    In the interview, however, Obama didn't expand on his assessment of Libya, nor did he explain Clinton's role in promoting the intervention.
    As he and his team wait out the nomination process, it's unlikely he'll delve much deeper into her role on the national security decisions of his first term in an attempt to remain impartial.
    "The President and I are not going endorse because we both, when we ran, said, 'Let the party decide,'" Vice President Joe Biden told an interviewer with Mic News Monday. "But gosh almighty, they're both qualified."