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She's gone from Foggy Bottom, but global chaos still hurts Hillary

The chaos enveloping international relations this year has taken its toll on President Barack Obama's approval rating and midterm election prospects for his party. But it also hurts Hillary Rodham Clinton.

By serving as Obama's secretary of state, the former first lady forged an independent political identity that has made her the front-runner to succeed him in 2016. At the same time, that tenure ties her political standing to the condition of American foreign policy even after she has departed Foggy Bottom.

Hillary Clinton remarks on Women Decison-Makers in the Global Economy at the Clinton Global Initiative annual meeting in New York.
Adam Jeffery | CNBC
Hillary Clinton remarks on Women Decison-Makers in the Global Economy at the Clinton Global Initiative annual meeting in New York.

I asked Clinton, in an interview last week for National Public Radio, how much responsibility she bears for turmoil in Ukraine, Gaza, Iraq and Syria. "It doesn't do us much good to point fingers at each other," she said. Her 2016 rivals are already pointing.

In particular, she can expect they'll point at what she told me about relations with Vladimir Putin's Russia, which she and Obama famously tried to "reset" when they took office after the presidency of George W. Bush.

"The reset worked," she said. Clinton pointed to Russia's cooperation on an arms treaty, pressure on Iran, and the war in Afghanistan early in the Obama administration. But that statement may sound jarring to voters unsettled by Russian aggression now.

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"Every party in the White House has the responsibility during the time it's there to do the best we can, to lead and manage the many problems we face, and I think we did that in the first term," she said. The distinction between Obama's first and second terms is unlikely to be so clear in a 2016 campaign.

In the diplomatic memoir "Hard Choices" that she's currently promoting, Clinton notes that a secretary of state must serve as CEO of a large diplomatic apparatus. I asked whether any of the problems the administration now faces abroad or at homethink Veterans Administration, the IRS and the NSAstem from a "management deficit." Governors often tout the value of their executive experience as better preparation for the White House than the legislative experience of members of Congress. The three leading players of the Obama presidency so far are former senators Obama, Biden and Clinton.

"Oh, you don't expect me to agree with that, do you?" she responded with a chuckle. It may not be the last time she gets that question.

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Clinton was upbeat during the interview, which hasn't always been the case in her relations with the press. Former New York Times editor Jill Abramson recently noted that the ex-secretary of state has unrealistically high expectations for her portrayal in the media.

"I do sometimes expect more than perhaps I should," Clinton told me. As robust as her political standing appears right now, she should expect a difficult campaign if she decides to launch one.

—By CNBC's John Harwood

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