Hillary Clinton's Frantic Embrace of Obama

Hillary Clinton's Frantic Embrace of Obama
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In her desperation to hold off the challenge of a 74-year-old socialist senator who is not even a Democrat, Hillary Clinton has embraced President Obama with increasing fervor, apparently in search of minority voters in South Carolina and other southern states. In the Democratic Party debate following her drubbing in New Hampshire, Clinton repeatedly praised Obama’s economic and foreign policy record. For purposes of this campaign, she has cast herself as the president’s political heir now running for his third term.

Common sense tells us that this is not what she wanted to do. Leaving aside Bill and Hillary’s personal antipathy for the interloper who sidetracked her 2008 campaign, the Clintons also know that grabbing hold of a deeply divisive president with weak approval ratings does not place her in the best position for what should be a very competitive general election. 

Yet Mrs. Clinton’s adulation must be music to Obama’s ears. He’s been, let us just stipulate, unduly attentive to his own presidential legacy from Day One. The question then has become: what can the president do to help elect Hillary Clinton? Besides ensuring that his Justice Department doesn’t indict her—no small issue—history tells us his influence is limited.

Incumbent presidents always want their party to hold the White House, but it’s difficult to accomplish. Since the beginning of the 20th century, only Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge and Ronald Reagan have seen their party’s nominee elected at the end of their terms. In recent memory, two-term presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush saw the opposition party regain the White House. Winning three times in a row is tough. It will be again this time.

After eight years, the public is generally looking for something different. Obama’s poll numbers haven’t been great these last couple of years. His job approval rating in the RealClearPolitics poll average is currently 46 percent. Fifty percent disapprove. These numbers are nothing to brag about, but they probably bolster support for Clinton, especially among blacks and Hispanics. But to win in November, Hillary (or Bernie Sanders) will have to draw support from a segment of the public that has an unfavorable view of the current administration, namely independents. This is going to be difficult—and there’s little the president can do to help.

For someone who has been so conscious of how he’ll be perceived in the history books, Obama’s accomplishments are tenuous. Economic growth has been tepid during most of his presidency and seems to be stalling again. His signature domestic policy achievement, the Affordable Care Act, was passed under false promises on a straight party-line vote, and remains unpopular six years after enactment as higher premium costs, narrow provider networks, and cancellation of previous policies continue to roil the insurance markets. Most of the rest of Obama’s legacy consists of executive orders (climate change, lifting sanctions on Iran) that are also unpopular and could be reversed unilaterally by the next president.

The sour public mood extends beyond the Obama administration and Congress—and Washington. Americans believe the country is headed in the wrong direction by nearly a three-to-one margin, which tilts the political environment strongly against the incumbent party. This election is the GOP’s to lose. The public is prepared to hear another narrative about how American optimism can be restored and the economy healed, and it is up to the GOP candidates to make that case. But the public is clearly receptive to that pitch: polls show that every Republican still in the presidential race is competitive when put in a mock matchup against Hillary Clinton.

The last president who really helped his party’s nominee was Ronald Reagan. The Gipper campaigned long and hard for his vice president and successor, George H.W. Bush. Reagan was riding record popularity in 1988, and Bush was the beneficiary. Reagan’s record in restoring the economy, lowering taxes, beginning the process of reforming welfare, and rebuilding American military strength while striking arms control pacts with the Soviet Union was heartily endorsed by the American public.

Reagan and Bush campaigned across the country trumpeting American economic dynamism, a Soviet empire in decline, and restoration of American pride and respect in the world. What will Hillary Clinton say about the last eight years?  

Frank J. Donatelli was assistant to President Reagan for political and intergovernmental affairs and is a past deputy chairman of the Republican National Committee. He grew up in Pennsylvania.

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