THE BIG IDEA:
— Encouraging African leaders not to cling to power for life, Barack Obama expressed confidence during a speech in Addis Ababa yesterday that he could win a third term if he ran. “I love my work, but under our Constitution, I cannot run again,” he said. “I actually think I’m a pretty good president. I think if I ran, I could win. But I can’t. So there’s a lot that I’d like to do to keep America moving, but the law is the law.”
It is a fun parlor game to speculate on Obama’s reelection prospects if there was no 22nd Amendment. He’s about as popular right now as he was at this stage in 2011; his approval rating is 45 percent in our latest poll. The economy is stronger in key ways. And the Democratic base is more passionate about him than Hillary Clinton.
But Obama—who won in 2008 as an outsider—is now seen as an insider, at a time when Americans want a change agent. See the summer success of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump.
Becoming a lame duck has liberated the president to take action on issues like immigration, Iran and climate change. These positions could backfire with independents in a general election, but they could also galvanize record turnout among Hispanics, African-Americans and young people.
The debate over Obama’s electability is moot, but it dovetails with a broader, ongoing conversation within the Clinton campaign about the extent to which she should tie her fortunes to the president’s. She knows that she needs the so-called Obama coalition to turn out in force next November, which is one reason she’s tacked to the left in recent months. Many of these voters, registered by the Obama campaign in 2008 or 2012, will only turn out for Hillary if they see a vote for her as a vote for a third Obama term.
Hillary is not actively distancing herself from her ex-boss as much as many observers predicted throughout 2014. Almost exactly a year ago, during an interview with The Atlantic, Clinton criticized Obama for not taking more action in Syria and for an internal White House mantra buzzed about at the time (“Don’t do stupid sh**”). This prompted Obama allies like David Axelrod to point out that Clinton, not Obama, voted to authorize the Iraq war in the first place. Hillary phoned Obama to say she had not meant “to attack him,” and her spokesman announced that she looked forward to “hugging it out” when they were both on Martha’s Vineyard a few days later. We haven’t seen a blow-up quite like that since then.
From the preternaturally cautious and calculating Clinton, watch for a continued balancing act. When she distances herself, it will be more implicit and subtle than during that Atlantic interview. Her campaign leadership team is also stocked with Obama alumni who were still at the White House during this time last year. “I’m not running for my husband’s third term and I’m not running for Barack Obama’s third term,” she declared in New Hampshire this spring. In the very next breath, she added: “I’m running to continue the positive, results-oriented policies that both of them worked for.”
Some additional distancing is probably inevitable. Vice President George H.W. Bush’s talk during the 1988 campaign about “a kinder, gentler America” was a calculated effort to show he was different than Ronald Reagan. Few remember it now, but Reagan’s approval rating in the summer of 1987 was in the 40s because of the Iran-Contra scandal. A July 1987 Gallup poll asked how Reagan would go down in history: only 9 percent said he would be remembered as “outstanding”; 28 percent said “above average”; 34 percent said “average”; and 26 percent said either “below average” or “poor.” It’s a good reminder Obama could be viewed very differently next November.