It’s Obama Versus Trump as Clinton Leans on ‘Cleanup Hitter’

Updated on
  • Democratic nominee embraces president’s appeal to key groups
  • Trump’s ascendance revs up Obama effort to secure Clinton win

Poll Shows Obama Approval Rating at New High

Hillary Clinton’s name is on the ballot, but the 2016 race so far has been just as much a contest between Barack Obama and Donald Trump.

Never in modern times has a retiring incumbent been so central to a presidential campaign, a phenomenon embraced by a nominee who initially kept her distance. Crowds sometimes cheer “four more years” when Obama or his wife, Michelle, headline rallies for Clinton.

The outsize role Obama is playing reflects a strategic choice by Clinton to tap an election-year surge in his popularity; the president enjoys 53 percent job approval in the latest Gallup Poll. The Clinton campaign knows that she simply can’t get to the White House unless she can appeal to a coalition she has struggled to excite -- the African-American, Hispanic, and younger voters who delivered Obama the presidency, said a Democrat close to the campaign and to the Obama administration.

“Barack Obama has essentially put Hillary Clinton on his back and is trying to carry her across the finish line metaphorically,” said Democratic pollster Peter Hart, who has polled presidential elections since 1964. “There is no president that has put his prestige and his power behind a candidate more than Barack Obama, and if Hillary Clinton is successful she will owe it to Barack Obama more than any candidate I have ever known.”

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest declared Obama the “cleanup hitter” for Clinton at a recent news briefing. In that role, Obama plans to devote one to two days each week to campaign for her through the election. He traveled to North Carolina on Tuesday looking to run up the score on Trump, whose campaign is reeling after last week’s release of a 2005 video tape in which he made vulgar comments about women -- a development that led many GOP allies to desert him. 

Obama appeared to relish the opportunity to attack Trump for the tape on Tuesday, going off-script and speaking 20 minutes longer than expected at a rally in Greensboro. He questioned how Republicans could criticize Trump’s remarks but maintain their support for his campaign.

"I too believe in forgiveness and redemption, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to elect the person president," Obama said. "We saw this coming. He’s been saying bad stuff for a while now. I mean what’d you think, he was just going to transform himself?"

Obama’s Antipathy

More than a year ago, long before Trump was considered a viable nominee, Obama and his advisers already were planning an unprecedented push for Clinton, seeing the election of a Democratic successor as critical to securing his policy achievements. But Trump’s emergence has intensified that fervor, said the Democrat close to the administration who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Obama has an antipathy toward Trump that runs deeper than politics, the Democrat said. The president and his advisers consider Trump antithetical to core Obama values such as a commitment to racial and cultural diversity, a reliance on reasoned decision-making and a willingness to work within global norms.

The disdain between the men is evident. Trump led the “birther” movement that falsely questioned Obama’s nationality early in his presidency, and Obama responded by publicly ridiculing the billionaire at the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner.

During the most recent debate, Trump railed against Obama’s foreign policy, health-care program, and handling of racial unrest, repeatedly linking Clinton to the president.

“This country cannot take another four years of Barack Obama, and that’s what you’re getting with her,” Trump said.

The 2016 race has been roiled by protests over police shootings of black men, the fight over the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade accord, anxiety over immigration, economic angst among working-class whites and fears of Islamic State-inspired terrorism at home. Trump and Obama personify those social tensions in the campaign.

The starkly different ways Americans interpret those developments are embodied in North Carolina, a melting pot of southern white conservatives, a sizable black population, and some of the nation’s most prestigious universities. Its largest city, Charlotte, has been gripped by protests following a deadly police shooting last month.

Trump’s Gripes

“It’s hard to think of a time when not only the president’s legacy but the president himself is as central to the campaign,” said Julian Zelizer, a presidential historian at Princeton University.

Trump “talks about ‘Crooked Hillary,’” he said. “But his real gripe is not only what the Obama presidency stood for but everything Obama himself stands for.”

Traditionally, the presidential nominee emerges as party leader by the summer convention. Yet the most durable moments of July’s Democratic convention were speeches by Michelle Obama and the Muslim parents of a U.S. soldier killed in action. Clinton spent much of August out of the public eye raising money, and was sidelined for several days last month by pneumonia.

“Any president on the campaign trail is likely to overshadow any candidate, especially when they have the campaign skills of Barack Obama,” said Democratic political consultant Steve McMahon. “That’s not to take anything away from Hillary Clinton; he’s an extraordinary and remarkable campaigner.”

Few nominees have begun their campaigns as widely recognized as Clinton, a former first lady, U.S. senator from New York, 2008 presidential candidate and secretary of state. Yet Clinton acknowledges her weakness in generating excitement on the campaign trail, and her instinct for privacy further handicaps her connection with voters.

“When it comes to public service, the service part has always been easier for me than the public part,” Clinton said in Philadelphia last month. “I confess I don’t enjoy doing some of the things that come naturally to most politicians -- like talking about myself.”

‘An Insult’

While an incumbent president always wields influence in the contest to succeed him, Obama has had an unusually forceful presence. His role in the campaign will include rallies, fundraising and television, radio and social media appearances. The first lady already has appeared in a television ad. The appearances are directed and organized by the Clinton campaign, White House aides said.

Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, by comparison was so diminished in his final year that he left public response to the worst financial crisis since 1929 to his treasury secretary, Hank Paulson, and the two presidential candidates, Obama and Republican nominee John McCain. Bush didn’t even attend the 2008 Republican convention.

Ronald Reagan in 1988 and Bill Clinton in 2000 kept similarly low profiles in the campaigns of their vice presidents, George H.W. Bush and Al Gore. Though Gore distanced himself from Clinton because of the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal, Bill Clinton and many Democratic strategists, including some Obama advisers, think that may have cost Gore the election.

While Obama’s popularity has been rising, the nominees are more despised than admired: only 43 percent of Americans have a favorable view of Clinton and 36 percent of Trump, according to the Real Clear Politics average of polls conducted Sept. 27 through Oct. 9.

Obama’s criticism of Trump has been a continuing thread in his speeches this year, spanning remarks in Springfield in February on the U.S. political discourse to his final address to the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 20, in which Obama warned that “a nation ringed by walls would only imprison itself.”

Obama is becoming more vehement as the election approaches. Should African Americans fail to turn out to support Clinton in large numbers, he told the Congressional Black Caucus this month, he would “consider it a personal insult -- an insult to my legacy.”