Move Over, Barack Obama. The Clintons Are Taking Over

The election is two years away, but make no mistake: An inauguration took place this week.

Senators Obama and Clinton listened to President Bush speak at the National Prayer Breakfast in 2007.

Photograph by Getty Images

This has been the week of the long-awaited, full-bore, balls-to-the-wall return of the Clintons to the campaign trail, first with Bill in Arkansas on Monday and Tuesday, then with Hillary in Chicago on Wednesday and Philadelphia last night. Every move the former First Couple makes is viewed through gimlet eyes and subject to instant judgment. Does WJC still have his mojo? Has HRC found a message? Will they be able to move the needle for Democrats they aim to help between now and Election Day?

For what it’s worth, the answers in reverse order are: (a) we’ll see; (b) as of last night, maybe, just maybe; and (c) do bears shit in the woods?

Unavoidable as these questions and assessments are, however, they miss the larger drama already unfolding before our eyes. After more than six years in which Democratic politics have revolved around Barack Obama, the Clintons are aggressively reclaiming what they have long perceived as their rightful position at the center of their party’s universe—a reassertion made all the more vivid and undeniable by the interstellar drift of the current occupant of the Oval Office.

Nowhere is the Clintons’ assertiveness more apparent than in the coast-to-coast midterm blitzes they each have embarked upon. In the next three-plus weeks, as first reported in Politico, Hillary is slated to appear on behalf of the Democratic Senate candidates in Colorado, Iowa, Georgia, Kentucky, New Hampshire, and North Carolina, as well as gubernatorial candidates in some of those states, Massachusetts, and elsewhere.

President Obama leading a cabinet meeting in 2012.
President Obama leading a cabinet meeting in 2012.
Getty Images

Her husband’s itinerary has been more closely held: The only events that have been announced so far are in Minneapolis today, in support of Minnesota Senator Al Franken and Governor Mark Dayton, and in Manchester, New Hampshire on October 16, where 42 will appear at a Jefferson Jackson dinner on behalf of Senator Jeanne Shaheen and Governor Maggie Hassan. But according to party strategists familiar with his travel plans, his schedule will be as jam-packed as his wife’s, likely including forays into Iowa, Michigan, and Wisconsin, as well as return incursions into North Carolina and Colorado (both of which he visited in September), and Arkansas.

The scope of the Clintons’ peregrinations would be striking on its own. But its significance is amplified immeasurably in contrast with the extreme constriction of Obama’s. Although the president is still greeted warmly on the bright-blue coasts—this week he has collected hefty checks in Gotham, Greenwich, CT, and Los Angeles, with San Francisco on deck today—and in his home state of Illinois, in places where the political action is, he is anathema. Among the dozen Senate races now in play, there is only one in which he is expected to make an appearance: Michigan. By the Democrats running in the eleven other states, each pantingly anticipating the arrival of Hill and/or Bill, Obama’s presence isn’t merely unsought but actively spurned.

To say that the Clintons are popular and Obama is not simultaneously states the obvious and understates the case. Internal Democratic polling pegs Bill Clinton’s approval rating among undecided voters at north of 50 percent; according to a recent survey, he stands alone among campaign surrogates in his capacity to change minds. And while Hillary is a less broadly potent figure, her popularity and motivational sway with women voters—certainly a, and arguably the, critical swing constituency in many contested Senate races—is significant, as is her fund-raising prowess. (On October 20, she will headline both a high-dollar fund-raiser for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee hosted by Hollywood macher Jeffrey Katzenberg and a female-focused buck-raking event being staged by Nancy Pelosi.)

For Obama, the picture is starkly different. Beyond his record-low overall approval ratings, his disapproval ratings among undecided voters are through the roof: from the mid-fifties to the low sixties depending on the state in question. Not long ago, party strategists believed his ability to energize African-American voters—whose turnout levels will matter hugely in states such as Louisiana, North Carolina, Georgia, and Kentucky—meant that he might be deployed in some of those places. No longer. “We’d gain less in minorities that he’d turn on than we’d give up in undecideds he’d turn off,” says a top Democratic tactician. “Net-net, for almost every campaign, putting him out there is a loser.”

Bill Clinton visited the White House in September to celebrate the 20th anniversary of AmeriCorps, which he created.
Bill Clinton visited the White House in September to celebrate the 20th anniversary of AmeriCorps, which he created.
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Obama’s recent economic speech in Evanston, Illinois—in which he defiantly declared that, though his name isn’t on the ballot this fall, his policies surely are—only had the effect of making him more toxic. According to strategists at the national level and with specific campaigns, reactions among Democratic Senate candidates fell into one or more of three categories: disbelief, dismay, and apoplexy, all sharing a common underpinning of mystification about what the president could possibly have been thinking. “It’s beyond political malpractice in the White House,” contends a Democratic operative with years of campaign experience. “There must be some psychodramatic thing happening with the president—it’s like he’s acting out.”

Psychodrama, of course, has always been the special province of the Clintons, and no doubt, soon enough, they will reclaim that territory, too. For now, however, we are presented with a scenario rich not just with pathos but also with historical irony. Eight years ago, in the 2006 midterms, it was freshman senator Obama who was welcomed by Democratic candidates in purple and even red states, while they quietly, and sometimes less so, fretted over having the Clintons come to town. (Please recall then-Missouri Senate aspirant Claire McCaskill saying of Bill on Meet The Press, in September 2006, “I think he’s been a great leader, but I don’t want my daughter near him.”) And it was this dynamic that, in part, paved the way to Obama’s conquest over his purportedly inevitable adversaries two years later.

But now it is the Clintons who are embraced and Obama shooed away, the Clintons who are everywhere and Obama nowhere. One can only imagine the effect of the turnabout on the respective psyches of those involved. As for the rest of the us, the moment at hand is bracing, and faintly head-spinning. Not that we didn’t see it coming—just not so garishly, and not so soon.