The New York Times published a piece yesterday that raised quite a few eyebrows, claiming that President Obama, using “unusually candid remarks,” told a group of Democratic donors late last week that the party’s nominating contest is nearly over – and Democrats should start coming together to support Hillary Clinton.
Bernie Sanders noted on the show last night that the White House has already pushed back against the report, which is true. Press Secretary Josh Earnest disputed the article and said the president’s private remarks were about Democratic cohesion in general, not about one candidate over the other.
But the chatter served as a reminder about an overlooked detail: Obama will not be a passive observer during the 2016 election cycle. On the contrary, the Washington Post reported yesterday that the president is “plunging into the campaign fray.”
“The president has been clear that as we get closer to the general election, it will become even more important that the American people understand what is at stake,” White House deputy press secretary Jennifer Friedman said in an email.Obama and his top aides have been strategizing for weeks about how they can reprise his successful 2008 and 2012 approaches to help elect a Democrat to replace him. And out of concern that a Republican president in 2017 – either Trump or Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.) – would weaken or reverse some of his landmark policies, Obama and his surrogates have started making the case that it is essential for the GOP to be defeated in November.
The article added that Obama “is poised to be the most active sitting president on the campaign trail in decades,” which is both true and interesting in ways the political world hasn’t really considered in earnest yet.
Obama obviously isn’t the only modern two-term president, but he’s likely to be the only one who’s played a high-profile electoral role during his eighth year.
In 2008, then-President George W. Bush was deeply unpopular; John McCain went out of his way to downplay any connections with the incumbent of his party; and Republicans in general urged Bush to effectively hide as much as humanly possible.
In 2000, then-President Bill Clinton was extremely popular, but Al Gore was eager to break free of Clinton’s shadow. The sitting vice president generally asked Clinton to stand aside, which he did.
In 1988, then-President Ronald Reagan was relatively popular, despite being tarnished by the Iran-Contra scandal the year before, but health issues made it difficult for the Republican icon to campaign aggressively in support of then-Vice President George H.W. Bush. Reagan delivered a notable convention speech, but was not a prominent voice on the campaign trail.
In 1976, former President Richard Nixon was considered a national disgrace. At his party’s insistence, he made no campaign appearances.
In 1968, then-President Lyndon Johnson supported Hubert Humphrey, but generally in a behind-the-scenes capacity.
President Obama, however, is likely to blaze a very different kind of trail in support of the Democratic nominee this year. If his support this fall is roughly in line with where it is now – Obama’s approval rating has climbed in recent months, and he’s about as popular now as Reagan was at this point in his eighth year – it’ll help his party to have him campaigning aggressively, which he’s apparently eager to do.
Postscript: The Post article added, “Vice President Biden, for his part, is preparing to campaign heavily in the Rust Belt to appeal to the white, working-class voters who may be drawn to Trump, according to aides.” It’s a safe bet Biden will maintain a much higher campaign profile than Dick Cheney did in his eighth year.