Hillary Clinton is now the presumptive nominee of her party.
In a tight race against Donald Trump, with high unfavorable ratings of her own, she needs all the help she can get. And in a few days she will officially have the support of the most valuable player on the Democratic Party team — President Obama.
He can help her in several crucial ways.
Because he is loved and respected by Democrats across the board, he can help her with her biggest challenge right now — unifying the party. He also can help with key demographic groups that Clinton badly needs in the fall — African-Americans and, most importantly, young voters under 30. Young people have been voting overwhelmingly for Bernie Sanders and have been particularly resistant to Clinton all year.
There are other benefits that a high-profile surrogate such as President Obama can offer. Unlike Donald Trump, who is essentially a one-man band with few high-level surrogates to speak for him, defend him or reinforce his message, Clinton has a whole stable of surrogates. They will help her maximize the single most important resource in a presidential campaign — time.
“The candidate can only be at one place in any one given moment,” said former Democratic strategist Chris Lehane. “But when you use the president, a first lady, a former president who’s your spouse and yourself, that’s four or five different major principles that you can put out there. You can do multiple fundraisers. You can be multiple places at once.”
Helping Clinton leverage the advantage of those surrogates is one reason the president will be coming out for Clinton so early.
It might sound like a no-brainer for Obama to endorse Clinton. Of course the president wants to help elect a Democratic successor! But having a popular sitting president ready to campaign all-out for his party’s nominee is actually kind of rare.
Ronald Reagan endorsed George H.W. Bush, but he didn’t campaign for him the way Obama plans to campaign for Clinton. Bush wanted to establish himself as his own man after eight years as the No. 2, and Reagan was already suffering from the early effects of Alzheimer’s disease.
The situation between Bill Clinton and Al Gore was more complicated. Clinton endorsed Gore, but because of Clinton’s scandals, Gore didn’t ask him to campaign until the very end, when it was probably too late to make a difference. Lehane, who worked for Clinton and then became Gore’s press secretary, remembers the huge internal debate in the Gore campaign about this.
“President Clinton, who had at that time the highest job approval rating of any president in their final year, also was still dealing with the baggage of what had happened in the impeachment process,” says Lehane. “He ended up being an asset in the last few weeks of the campaign, but there’s always been that revisionism ‘what-if’ — what if he had been out there earlier, would that have made a difference?”
George W. Bush didn’t campaign for John McCain, partly because Bush’s approval ratings were so low, all the way down into the 30s at the end of Bush’s term. As Republican strategist Scott Reed remembered: “The country had just gone through some very difficult times financially and people were upset with the government and I think McCain’s view was ‘I’ve got to run this my way.'”
He lost to Barack Obama, who now has a job approval rating hovering around 50 percent nationally. Hillary Clinton has latched herself tightly to President Obama’s popularity and to his legacy, often complaining that he doesn’t get the credit he deserves for saving the economy from the Great Recession.
“The president got us out of that ditch. Now we’ve got to run with it and I’ve laid out plans to do just that,” she said this week in California.
Even before the president endorses, he has been busy laying out the argument against Donald Trump and making it clear he’s champing at the bit and eager to hit the campaign trail. Last week, he was in Elkhart, Ind., giving a speech on the economy. He never mentioned Trump’s name but he did say: “If we get cynical and just vote our fears, or if we don’t vote at all, we won’t build on the progress that we started.”
The president needs a Democrat in the White House to preserve his accomplishments and to build on them.
If Donald Trump ends up in the Oval Office,” says Democratic strategist Lynda Tran, “President Barack Obama’s legacy on health care, immigration, climate change and the economy is all at great risk and, in fact, I bet that this is going to be a core message that he really hammers home when he’s on the trail stumping for Hillary Clinton.”
So this fall, Barack Obama has as much on the line as does the Democratic nominee.