Maureen Dowd / Madam President

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President Barack Obama proved himself a great segue artist Friday, as he smoothly glided from his previously unassailable position on the matter of surveillance to his new unassailable position on the matter of surveillance.

There is no moral high ground that he does not seek to occupy. As with drones and gay marriage, he seems peeved that we were insufficiently patient with his own private study of the matter. Why won't the country agree to entrust itself to his fine mind?

Yet while Barry is in the thick of it, the air is thick with Hillary. From the sidelines, she is soaking up a disproportionate amount of attention and energy, as though she were already Madam President.

She is supposed to be resting and off making $200,000 speeches, but instead she's around every political corner.

The cicadas never showed up. But we can't hear ourselves think here this summer over the roar of the Clinton machine -- and the buzzing back to life of old Clinton enemies. Meanwhile, Mr. Obama's vaunted campaign machine, which has morphed into a political group called Organizing for Action, has sputtered in its attempt to tear down Republican obstacles and push through his agenda.

While Mr. Obama seems drained and disgusted at the idea of punching through the Republican blockade that awaits him on his return from Martha's Vineyard, he told Jay Leno that Hillary "had that post-administration glow" when they met for lunch recently.

As the president was getting ready for his news conference, his former secretary of state was dominating the news with an event she didn't even attend. Emily's List held what was, in essence, Hillary's first Iowa campaign event, titled "Madam President" and featuring Claire McCaskill, the Missouri senator who famously broke away from Clinton Inc. to join the Obama revolution in 2008. Now Sen. McCaskill, who once said she wouldn't trust Bill Clinton near her daughter, is presciently back in the fold, on board with Ready for Hillary, the super PAC supporting Ms. Clinton for 2016.

As ABC News' Michael Falcone reported from Iowa, the state that allowed Mr. Obama to vault over Hillary, Ms. McCaskill said she's dreaming of "that moment in 2017 when we can say 'Madam President' to Hillary Rodham Clinton.' "

In a funny echo of Hillary's defense of Bill during the Gennifer Flowers scandal, when she said she wasn't home baking cookies and having teas, Ms. McCaskill told the forum it's hard for women to run for office because it's "not sitting down to tea and crumpets."

For one thing, Ms. McCaskill said, it's awful to go to a department store to buy Spanx and get recognized as a senator.

It's being called Hillary's "shadow campaign." But the shadow campaign actually began when she was secretary of state. Mr. Obama granted his former rival special privileges and allowed her to move Hillaryland, with all her loyal image-buffers and political aides, into the State Department intact.

Because he doesn't traffic in the unseemly nitty-gritty of politics that is mother's milk to the Clintons, Mr. Obama has been somewhat naive in how he has handled the imagery of their relationship.

West Wing strategists did not totally trust Hillary after the bitter 2008 battle. They thought by pulling the former secretary of state close, Mr. Obama could ensure that Hillary was not out there recreating events and decisions or taking more credit than she deserved -- as she sometimes did during her 2008 campaign.

So Mr. Obama did not seem fully aware, with their cozy joint "60 Minutes" interview and their laughing alfresco lunch at the White House recently, that instead of co-opting Hillary, he looked like he was handing her the White House silver on a silver platter. The Clintons can present those images as Mr. Obama passing the torch and bypassing Joe Biden, just as Bill once took a simple handshake from JFK during a Boys Nation visit to the White House and turned it into an Arthurian moment.

Many Democrats are hungry to make history again, and they see the first woman president as the natural successor to the first black president.

But in other ways, Hillary is not such a natural successor. The Clintons are ends-justify-the-means types with flexible boundaries about right and wrong, while the Obama mystique is the opposite. His White House runs on the idea that if you are virtuous and true and honorable, people will ultimately come to you. (An ethos that sometimes collides with political success.)

It's odd that Mr. Obama, who once talked about being a transformational president, did not want to ensure that his allies and his aims were imprinted on the capital. Instead, he has teed up the ball for Hillary. Some of the excitement about Barack Obama was the prospect of making a clean start, after years of getting dragged into the Clintons' dubious ethics and personal messes. Yet Mr. Obama ushered in the return of Clinton Inc. and gave it his blessing.

What he doesn't seem to realize yet is that Hillary's first term will be seen, not as a continuation of Mr. Obama, but as Bill Clinton's third term.

opinion_commentary

Maureen Dowd is a syndicated columnist for The New York Times.


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