Lessons From Hillary Clinton: What Obama Can Learn

PHOTO: President Obama and Hillary ClintonCarolyn Kaster/AP Photo
President Barack Obama, left, and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton attend the plenary session of the sixth Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia, in this April 14, 2012 photo.

The question that Hillary Clinton gets the most these days has nothing to do with her globe-trotting diplomacy, her pantsuits or her world-famous husband. It is, "Will you run for president again?"

Her approval rating sits in the high 60s, a perch that President Obama will probably never reach. She gets personal appeals to save a human rights activist in China.

What has Hillary done since the bitter days of the 2008 Democratic primary to earn this status? Easy: She's stayed out of politics.

Even as Obama's secretary of state, Clinton rarely dabbles in the toxic Washington debates that drag down everyone. And lately, she has been playful, not hiding behind a mask of political cover.

Literally: Clinton went easy on the makeup at a public appearance recently, a choice that got her face splashed across the Republican-friendly Drudge Report website. But when she was asked about mascara-gate in an interview, Clinton explained simply that she just doesn't care what you think about her.

"If I want to wear my glasses, I'm wearing my glasses," she said. "If I want to wear my hair back, I'm pulling my hair back. You know, at some point, it's just not something that deserves a lot of time and attention."

This is the same woman who inspired a viral Internet parody called "Texts From Hillary," and then found time between multinational summits to submit her own meme. And it was actually funny: "ROFL @ ur tumblr! gtg – scrunchie time. ttyl? …"

This is also the same secretary of state who wrote a letter to Jason Segel, the "How I Met Your Mother" star who wrote "The Muppets" and has more than one naked scene in "Forgetting Sarah Marshall."

"I was delighted to read about your interest in sharing the big screen with me," Clinton wrote Segel. "As you can imagine, I am a little occupied at the moment, but perhaps someday I can help you forget Sarah Marshall ... again. My only condition is that there be Muppets involved, and that is non-negotiable. In the meantime, you have my best wishes for continued success with your career."

Meanwhile, Clinton's boss has little room for flexibility these days. Obama's approval rating is under 50 percent, he's hammered over the economy nearly every day by Mitt Romney, and his own vice president forced him to come out for gay marriage ahead of schedule.

Even in the ABC News interview in which he said he supports gay marriage, Obama chose his words with calculated precision and never took off his professorial hat.

Is it time to read a page from Hillary's playbook and let Obama be Obama?

Lesson #1: Let your hair down

He can't do it as literally as Clinton can, of course. But for all the talk about Romney being a stiff candidate, Obama creaks like a robot more often than not. Sure, he can read some good lines that his writers crafted at the correspondents' dinner. Then there are jokes like these he delivers at fundraisers, about Romney:

"He actually believes that if CEOs and the wealthiest investors like him get rich, that the rest of us automatically do, too."

Compare that with this joke Clinton cracked at the Time 100 gala: "I was sort of hoping Kim Jong-un would show up. I don't think he's here, but if you catch sight of him, let me know. We're still trying to figure out what he's all about."

Jimmy Siegel, who worked on Clinton's 2008 marketing team for the campaign, said one of the more effective ways that Clinton has emerged as a likeable politician is through her humor, which he said comes naturally. Running the State Department without reservation, he said, "allows people to see the real Hillary."

"I think people, for the first time, honestly, people are getting a sense of her personality," Siegel said.

Lesson #2: Don't be afraid to cry

Maybe not literally this time, but a little bit of emotion might not hurt. When was the last time we saw Obama give a heartfelt speech about anything since Tucson?

The obvious anecdote for comparison here is when Clinton, tired from campaigning, cried before the New Hampshire primary in 2008 and wound up surprisingly winning by just a few points.

Obama had a perfect opportunity to reflect on his feelings last week in his gay marriage interview, but instead he explained his decision as a logical progression from conversations he had with his family and other parts of his "evolution." Needless to say, most gay rights activists were filled with emotion, even if he wasn't.

"Good politicians and the ones that are the most beloved show their human side," Siegel said.

Lesson #3: Lose the prompter

Yes, it's a tired rap on Obama that he reads from the Teleprompter all the time. That's not really the issue — all modern presidents use them. But sometimes it's good to speak candidly when the time is right.

Take a look at the beginning of this video of Clinton speaking off the cuff at the Women in the World Summit from March (make sure to catch the pantsuits joke). Compare that with this speech Obama gave in an elementary school classroom — behind a lectern, and two Teleprompters. "The Teleprompter clashes with Billy R.'s construction paper house," joked Jon Stewart.

It shouldn't be too hard for Obama to ditch the screens. In the scores of interviews and handful of press conferences he's given, Obama has proved he's not dependent on a script. And by giving a speech without a prompter, he might even suggest that he wrote it himself.

These are just small things that contribute to the image of Obama as a politician too reluctant to shed his shell. But voters choose their candidate in many ways, including general ways that they feel about the candidates.

In a Time poll last year, Clinton soared. While Obama beat Romney 46 to 43 percent, Clinton romped him 55 to 38 percent.

As Clinton said in her victory speech after the 2008 New Hampshire primary, "I felt like we all spoke from our hearts, and I am so gratified that you responded."