Peruse left-leaning opinion sites or read prominent liberal commentators on Twitter, and it is easy to come away with the impression that many on the Democratic side of the aisle believe the predictable tides of history have receded. Barack Obama, some contend, is not going to be a drag on Hillary Clinton’s political prospects. At least, not in the same way that most two-term presidents become for their party’s chosen successor. From the economy to the Affordable Care Act, Hillary Clinton seems more scared of running on her own record than she does of linking her political fortunes to those of the outgoing president.
“Clinton allies say that if the former secretary of State does in fact announce a second bid for the presidency this year, they expect that she’ll tether herself to a main slice of Obama’s legacy,” The Hill reported in January.
“Clinton has been openly enthusiastic about [Obamacare] in the weeks leading up to her announcement,” National Journal noted last week. “Before Obamacare, there was Hillarycare. With that history, and the need to rally a base that remains very fond of the president, Clinton was never likely to disavow the law.”
But Clinton isn’t merely endorsing the president’s record. She is apparently open to the prospect of embracing the president himself. “Rather than run from Mr. Obama, she intends to turn to him as one of her campaign’s most important allies and advocates — secFond only, perhaps, to her husband, the other president whose record will hover over her bid,” The New York Times observed on the 11th.
“Aligning herself too closely with Mr. Obama is fraught with risk for Mrs. Clinton,” That dispatch cautioned.
Mrs. Clinton will also be trying to defy political history: Only once since the establishment of the two-term limit in 1951 has a candidate won an election to succeed a president from the same party — and it was the first President George Bush, whose predecessor, Ronald Reagan, remained popular at the time and was beloved by Republicans.
Indeed. In seeking to succeed a two-term Democratic president in the White House, Clinton is attempting to replicate a feat last achieved by Martin Van Buren in 1836. But the Democratic argument in favor of tethering Clinton’s fortunes to Obama’s isn’t perfectly unconvincing. Obama’s average job approval rating according to RealClearPolitics is just shy of 45 percent today. It rebounded significantly in 2015 as gas prices plummeted and the economic recovery began to yield tangible results. For a president who arguably has a firm floor of support in the low 40s, Clinton’s decision to wrap her arms around the outgoing president has been characterized as a practical approach to campaigning for the White House in 2016.
But others see this tactical approach to winning the White House as a shortsighted one. The lack of foresight in this strategy is evident in that report from The Hill in January foreshadowing a Clinton campaign based on Obama’s economic record. “A series of economic reports including Friday’s positive jobs numbers is adding to Democratic confidence that the economy will finally be a winner for Obama in his last two years in office, and that it will help the Democratic White House candidate in 2016,” The Hill reported.
While the U.S. economy grew at a reasonable pace in the fourth quarter of 2014, it stalled in the first quarter of 2015. “The nation’s gross domestic product expanded at a meager 0.1 percent annual rate in the first quarter — well below the forecasts for 1.2 percent growth,” The Washington Post revealed. Hiring fell to a 15-month low in March. Manufacturing is declining, consumer spending remains tepid, the housing market is weak, and the labor participation rate seems locked at near 30-year lows.
Obama’s job approval rating has been buoyed by positive economic news even as the international security environment deteriorates. If the economic recovery reverses or another recession arrives between today and 2016, it’s fair to expect the president’s job approval rating to collapse back to its 2013 nadir.
Writing in Politico Magazine, the prescient folks at The University of Virginia’s Center for Politics see that Obama’s present stature with the electorate is anchored to a shaky foundation. What’s more, the president’s national job approval rating is inflated by states that are unlikely to be competitive in 2016. In key swing states like Iowa and New Hampshire, Larry Sabato, Kyle Kondik, and Geoffrey Skelley observed, the president is anything but an asset.
Let’s assume that the national polls are correct and that President Obama’s national approval rating is about 45 percent, and his disapproval rating is about 50 percent—his current numbers in the RealClearPolitics average of national polls. That’s a net difference of -5.
Let’s also assume that, generally speaking, Obama’s approval rating rises and falls relatively consistently across all 50 states. This allows us to use the president’s national net approval and his 2012 margin, winning or losing, in each state to calculate what we call the president’s “expected net approval” for a state-level poll.
Our baseline is Obama’s national four-point victory in 2012, which is about what his net approval rating was on Election Day. There is no better “poll of approval” for a sitting president than reelection results. So if Obama was +4 in November 2012 and now he’s -5, he has suffered a minus 9-point swing overall. We can then apply this expected swing to individual states. For instance, Obama won Ohio by three points in 2012. Applying the -9 swing from then to now, his “expected” approval in Ohio would be -6.
They also leave open the prospect that Hillary Clinton may fail to replicate Barack Obama’s winning electoral coalition of young people, unmarried women, and minorities. If the white vote is stronger for Republicans than it was in 2012, it leaves open the possibility that Republicans could pull off an Electoral College upset in states like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania (presuming the GOP devotes the requisite resources to the project of flipping these states).
Bloomberg’s Megan McArdle identified a truism in March when she noted that “The bigger your coalition, the bigger its internal tensions.” It is unlikely that black voters will turn out for the first woman to stand a chance of winning the presidency in the way that they did for the first African-American in the same position. If she expects to make that deficit up with women, she will have to outperform Obama, who already carried that demographic to the tune of 55 to 60 percent in 2012. How much better can she reasonably expect to do with this set of voters?
Democrats who insist that Clinton is best served by embracing Barack Obama may have convinced themselves that this is a data-centric contention, but it might also be founded in their desire to see this president’s suspect legacy affirmed by his prospective Democratic successor. If Clinton openly distanced herself from the president, it would open the door for a number of liberal lawmakers more concerned with self-preservation than Obama’s legacy to do the same. Judging by the hurt reaction from The New York Times editorial board to Democrats who shunned the president in 2014, abandoning Obama is tantamount to abandoning the principles of progressivism.
The pressure the left will put on Clinton to run alongside the outgoing president will be immense, and it might force her to shed her better political instincts. Republicans would like nothing more than to see Clinton wrap her arms around Obama ahead of 2016.