President Obama likes to say he has run his last campaign. But he’s determined to give Hillary Clinton a running start toward her own November election, mindful that much of his legacy depends on her crossing the finish line into the White House.
“I’m ready to pass the baton,” Obama told supporters at a joint rally with Clinton in Charlotte, N.C., earlier this month. “I know she can run that race: the race to create good jobs, and better schools, and safer streets, and a safer world.”
Obama will argue Clinton’s case Wednesday night in a prime-time address at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. That’s partly payback for Clinton’s loyal service as secretary of state during the president’s first term. It’s also a chance for Obama to secure his own agenda, which is unusually dependent on keeping a Democrat in the Oval Office.
Many of Obama’s signature initiatives — including his push to address climate change and the Iran nuclear deal — rest on executive actions, which could easily be reversed by a future Republican president.
Obamacare and Wall Street regulation have somewhat firmer foundations, being cemented in law. But there’s little doubt a Republican Congress would be eager to dismantle them, were they stripped of the protection of a Democratic veto pen.
Clinton is not a carbon copy of Obama, of course. She advocates a more hawkish foreign policy in the Middle East. And under pressure from the party’s progressive wing, she has backed away from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a cornerstone of the president’s pivot to Asia.
Nevertheless, Obama sees a kindred spirit in the woman with whom he fought a bitter primary battle eight years ago.
“We may have gone toe to toe from coast to coast,” Obama told supporters in Charlotte, “but we stood shoulder to shoulder for the ideals that we share.”
Overhauling the nation’s health care system was a signature cause for Clinton long before Obama took it up. The president said he and his secretary of state “shared a big hug” when Congress passed the Affordable Care Act, “after we finally realized one of the great causes of her career.”
Clinton and her primary rival Bernie Sanders sparred frequently over who would be tougher on Wall Street. But Clinton promises to preserve and improve the Dodd-Frank financial overhaul that Obama pushed through Congress during his first term.
“We’re going to defend and strengthen the tough reforms President Obama put in place on the financial industry,” Clinton said in Charlotte, “not tear them up like Donald Trump says he’ll do. We need to make sure that Wall Street can never wreck Main Street ever again.”
Clinton’s economic program is also similar to Obama’s, though she hopes to have more success than he has in pushing measures through Congress.
“We have to continue to take on deep structural challenges that existed long before the [economic] crisis,” Clinton said. “Inequality is too high, wages are too low, and it’s just too hard to get ahead.”
With his own approval ratings near 50 percent — higher than either Clinton’s or Trump’s — Obama could be a crucial supporter for this year’s Democratic nominee, especially if he’s successful in mobilizing the young and minority voters who twice helped propel him into the White House.
In order to do that, the president will have to overcome the frustration of those who feel promised change hasn’t come fast enough.
“It may take more than a year,” Obama cautioned in Charlotte. “Sometimes it takes more than a term. And sometimes it takes more than one presidency.”