In President Barack Obama's struggle with Congress to win fast-track authority on trade with 12 Pacific nations, a conspicuously missing voice has been that of his former secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, now a declared 2016 presidential candidate. It's in keeping with her obvious strategy to campaign in a defensive crouch.
Her reintroduction to the American electorate, delayed well into 2015, was deliberately — yet transparently — low key, to counter the widespread perception not only that she is entitled but also that her coronation for the next Democratic nomination is assured.
Rather than kicking off her campaign with a large and raucous televised rally and full-throated campaign speech, she settled for a brief Internet video pitched to the "everyday Americans" she pledged to represent, in which she appeared and spoke only for a few closing moments.
In an obvious gesture of calculated humility, the former first lady eschewed a lightning-swift opening visit to Iowa, the state in which she had placed an embarrassing third behind Mr. Obama and Sen. John Edwards in its 2008 caucuses. Instead, she elected to endure a 1,000-mile bus ride.
That endurance was tempered by her use of a large luxury van driven by a Secret Service agent. But she maintained a facade of just-folks normality by stopping off at a Chipotle, where photographers managed to capture her consorting with the hoi polloi.
Throughout the Iowa visit and in the following days, Hillary Clinton continued to hold small conversations with her intended targets in neighborly chats. They were designed to combat an impression left by her failed 2008 presidential campaign that she was too impersonal and aloof to warm hearts of other than the already committed and faithful.
But a bump in the road came early. After leaving the Obama cabinet, it turned out she had complied with a government requirement to forward business-related emails yet chose to erase personal emails from the private Internet server she had used in office. She defended the action as a right of privacy in a rare press conference of limited duration, and thereafter took few questions from the press.
All of this conduct inevitably worked against the campaign strategy of presenting a Hillary Clinton who had learned lessons from her 2008 campaign, widely criticized in the press at the time as excessively closed, cautious and isolated her from the voters.
Then the other day, a serious policy question was in the news that saw her on the sidelines in a potentially disadvantageous manner. President Obama's major effort to gain fast-track trade authority from Congress, as part of the effort to pass the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement (TPP), suffered a temporary setback when all but one Democratic senator voted against it, leaving the measure eight votes short of the margin necessary for it to advance.
Candidate Clinton is no longer in the Senate, and she remained essentially silent on the matter that she once as secretary of state said would "create a new high standard for multilateral trade." Her reticence drew a jibe from House Speaker John Boehner last week on "Meet the Press," who remarked that "she can't sit at the sidelines and let the president swing in the wind here."
Her failure to step into the fray came as Democrat Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, emerging as the party's strongest liberal voice in the Senate, has pointedly taken on Mr. Obama on the pending trade deal. She contends the deal could jeopardize the financial reforms on Wall Street and investments set in place by Congress after the Great Recession, and that the text of the deal, now classified, should be made public before any binding vote.
Mr. Obama in turn lashed out personally, saying Ms. Warren is "absolutely wrong" on the point, adding he would be "pretty stupid to sign a provision that would unravel" the reforms enacted with his support.
The disagreement within the Democratic ranks would ordinarily be an invitation to a presidential candidate like Ms. Clinton to express her views on it. Yet to date she has looked like a referee standing in a neutral corner, letting the boxers untangle each other on their own. With the fate of TPP still to be resolved, Hillary's cautious election strategy compromises her claim to be a decisive leader.
Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is email@example.com.