Obama to Help Clinton Make Case Against Trump

Obama to Help Clinton Make Case Against Trump
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President Obama is weeks away from diving headlong into the anti-Donald Trump campaign in an effort to support Hillary Clinton, the likely Democratic nominee, and to warn voters of risks to America’s economy, national security, and communities if Trump is elected.

Obama has said flatly that Trump will not succeed him as president, but his sway on behalf of a ticket when he’s not on the ballot will be an experiment. And whether Obama’s scathing public assessments of the real estate mogul – critiques at times mocking and dismissive and at other moments somber and serious – change any minds won’t be known for months.

Late in 2015, Obama boasted he had been “a pretty good president” and said if he could run again, he’d win.

“I would’ve enjoyed campaigning against Trump. That would’ve been fun,” he told GQ magazine during a period when few believed the New York businessman could capture the Republican nomination. 

Fast forward six months, and Democrats concede they underestimated Trump’s traction among disaffected middle-class and low-income Americans, not to mention Bernie Sanders’ magnetism among millennials, and Clinton’s vulnerabilities when it comes to measures of compassion and trustworthiness in poll after poll. Obama has not formally endorsed Clinton while the Democratic primary contests take place into June, but he has made no secret about his preference.

Strategists advising Obama, supporting the Clinton campaign and working for the Democratic Party have been experimenting with anti-Trump messages they hope can hobble the shape-shifting Republican by November, even if his primary opponents failed to find a successful formula.

Eight weeks ago, the president said he would campaign as a unifier during the summer and fall. “My most important role will be to make sure that after the primaries are done, I'm bringing everybody together so that we focus on winning the general election,” Obama said in March. 

But in truth, Obama will do more than coax Clinton and Sanders supporters to mend fences. He’s going to try to disqualify Trump as unfit for the complex job he seeks.

Democrats have studied the methods used by Trump’s GOP opponents and believe Republicans failed to defeat the reality TV host, in part because they waited too long to challenge him, so worried were they about alienating the base of the Republican Party. In the general election, Democrats may privately view Trump and his ideas as farce, but they insist in interviews that the White House, the Clinton campaign, and establishment Democrats plan to shed the occasionally lighthearted mockery in favor of assailing Trump as ill-prepared for the presidency, a danger to the country, and temperamentally erratic.

That’s the message Clinton favored this month, hammering Trump as a “loose cannon.” She has accused him of making shoot-from-the-lip campaign pronouncements that she asserts remain untethered to specifics or facts. She suggests the self-described billionaire won’t publicly disclose his tax returns because he’s hiding something from his supporters. And eager to mobilize women and minorities to turn out for her and for other Democratic candidates in the fall, Clinton has condemned Trump’s “bigotry, his bullying and his bluster.”

A Clinton campaign email to supporters this week warned the real estate developer’s “hateful language and dangerous policies will do serious harm to working families and put America’s security at risk.”

As president, Obama is uniquely qualified and is clearly warming up to: defending his legacy, fund-raising for Democratic candidates seeking to win control of the House and Senate, and defying the rarity in modern history of a party in power in the White House maintaining the executive branch after two terms. The president’s address at the Philadelphia Democratic National Convention will include effusive grace notes about the former New York senator as the best candidate to take the reins.

Clinton has described her policy ambitions as continuations of many of the president’s programs, even as she denies her White House tenure would amount to a third term of either the 42nd or 44th president. Clinton and Obama plan to be in sync while campaigning for Trump’s defeat.

The president, however, is on record as bemoaning polarizing, divisive politics and the advent of independent Super PACs. As president, Obama will protect his “one America” brand while contrasting Clinton’s qualifications with Trump’s.

“Obama’s voice, in particular, is important because he is an example of what good Democratic leadership can do,” a Democratic National Committee official said, declining to be quoted by name. “Obviously, he’s also a powerful speaker.”

Obama last week used part of a commencement address at Rutgers University to warn graduates and their families about Trump, whose name he never uttered. In a sarcastic tone, Obama suggested the presumptive Republican nominee and his party sought to fool voters.

“In politics and in life, ignorance is not a virtue,” Obama said to applause and laughter. “It's not cool to not know what you're talking about. That's not keeping it real, or telling it like it is. That's not challenging political correctness. That's just not knowing what you're talking about.”

Because Obama’s job approval numbers have climbed and his popularity within his party remains high, Democrats point to the president as an asset to the party’s nominee, despite criticisms of his leadership voiced by Republicans and many independents over nearly eight years.

They also noted in interviews that history is replete with shaky alliances between lame duck presidents and nominees seeking to strike out on their own. Bill Clinton complained to Al Gore after the 2000 election that the vice president erred in not championing the administration’s record, even if Gore’s aim was to distance himself from Clinton personally.

“I was much more upset about your message,” Clinton told Gore, according to an account he recalled in conversations with historian and author Taylor Branch.

George W. Bush expressed similar frustration that John McCain was allergic to White House assistance in 2008, acknowledging that the Arizona Republican was worried about Bush’s low poll ratings.

“I thought it looked defensive for John to distance himself from me. I was confident I could have helped him make his case,” Bush wrote in his memoir, “Decision Points.” “I was disappointed I couldn’t do more to help him.”

Having lost to Obama once, Clinton entered the 2016 race determined to learn from the victor’s successes in 2008 and 2012, and she has hugged the president while following her party in its leftward tilt.

While courting Democratic donors, or dissecting the presidential race during interviews, Obama and Clinton largely echo the other in hailing government as an effective tool to repair societal problems, defend Americans’ rights, and prepare for the future.

The president, who built winning coalitions twice and says he is worried about Democratic voter complacency this time around, says he is confident Clinton would preserve the lion’s share of his agenda, and he says he admires his former secretary of state as “wicked smart” and “tough.”

“I think that what Hillary presents is a recognition that translating values into governance and delivering the goods is ultimately the job of politics, making a real-life difference to people in their day-to-day lives,” he told Politico in January while comparing Clinton to Sanders. “Hillary is really idealistic and progressive,” he hastened to add.

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com.  Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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