In 2007, many African-American leaders endorsed Hillary Clinton, arguing that the country was not yet ready for a black president.
One of Michelle Obama’s key roles on the campaign trail was to convince rank and file African-Americans that white voters would also support her husband, so black voters wouldn’t be wasting their votes by backing him. Even on Election Day in 2008, some Obama supporters were deeply worried about the “Bradley Effect” — that white voters would tell pollsters they would vote for an African-American candidate but then not do so.
Eight years later, the question is not, “Can the Obamas win a presidential election?” but rather, “Can you win a presidential election without the Obamas?”
Traditionally, outgoing second-term presidents play a limited role on the campaign trail, since a party’s new candidate wants to talk about the future, not the past. First ladies rarely are involved in presidential elections other than when their husbands are running. And when a presidential candidate makes an appearance, he or she is usually the headline speaker.
But last week, at a campaign event in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Hillary Clinton delivered essentially an endorsement of both Obamas. The outgoing president, she said,”pulled our economy out of the ditch that it was in when he became president. He saved the auto industry, he cracked down on Wall Street, he has tackled healthcare, climate change, civil rights, and so much else.”
Then, Clinton spent five minutes praising the first lady: “Seriously — is there anyone more inspiring than Michelle Obama?”
Clinton then introduced Michelle Obama to a crowd that sounded more excited about the outgoing first lady than the likely future president.
In another illustration of their central role in this campaign, the Obamas will join Clinton in Philadelphia on Monday night at her last rally before the election.
The 2016 campaign may deliver Clinton the presidency, something she has long coveted.
For the Obamas, the 2016 campaign — if Clinton wins — will be a kind of final validation of their accomplishments in politics.
Becoming the first black president and then winning a second term are of course historic achievements. But two years ago, it appeared Obama would end his presidency like George W. Bush: unpopular and with his party looking to move on from him.
“In This Election, Obama’s Party Benches Him,” read the headline in The New York Times a few weeks before the 2014 elections.
With Obama's approval ratings sinking, Democratic candidates in key congressional races didn’t want the president to campaign alongside them. And when the Democrats lost seats in the House and control of the Senate, Obama was blamed for the defeats.
But after that November, Obama got lucky — and made some of his own luck. The conservative-controlled U.S. Supreme Court upheld one of the core planks of Obamacare and struck down gay marriage bans, cementing two policy changes that Obama had sought. No longer as concerned about politics, he excited liberals with his blunt speech about America’s racial challenges in Charleston, South Carolina, and his strong defense of allowing Muslim refugees to come to the United States.
The Democratic primary became competitive, and African-Americans were a key swing constituency. With Obama’s deep support in the black community, both Clinton and Bernie Sanders were at times in a competition over who could praise the president the most.
Then, presented with the choice of Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump as his successor, Americans appear to have started liking the current president more. His approval ratings are now consistently above 50 percent, after being stuck in the mid-40s for much of his tenure.
As a result, after being shunned by his party in 2014, Hillary Clinton has campaigned alongside Obama and featured him prominently at the Democratic National Convention.
And Clinton has explicitly run on the idea that she will be a defender of Obama’s presidency, looking to build on his signature programs, such as the Affordable Care Act.
Obama’s popularity has in fact forced Clinton in some ways to present herself as more supportive of the president than her pre-campaign record indicates. While secretary of state, Clinton was wary of Obama’s decisions to remove nearly all troops from Iraq and to not intervene early in Syria’s civil war.
But she has almost entirely avoided criticizing Obama’s policy decisions during her 2016 campaign.
Trump’s campaign has also validated Obama in some ways, by confirming some of his core arguments. The press, Republicans and even some Democrats have suggested the president deserves much of the blame for the gridlock in Washington during his tenure. Obama has argued that Republican elected officials simply could not work with him, because the party was really controlled not by its elected officials but outside conservative figures who spread falsehoods — like suggesting the president was not born in the United States — and refuse to compromise.
The nomination of Trump made the president look prescient.
“I see a straight line from the announcement of Sarah Palin as the vice-presidential nominee to what we see today in Donald Trump, the emergence of the Freedom Caucus, the Tea Party and the shift in the center of gravity for the Republican Party,” Obama told New York Magazine earlier this month.
By some measures, it is Obama, not Hillary Clinton or Bill Clinton, who is now viewed as the most important figure in Democratic politics.
A recent survey by the Public Religion Research Institute found that a plurality of Democrats (35 percent) said Obama was their favorite Democratic president, besting John F. Kennedy (21 percent) and Bill Clinton (20). (Ronald Reagan was the overwhelming favorite of Republicans. In 2008, Obama had suggested he wanted to shift American politics to the left the way Reagan did in a conservative direction).
According to data from the Pew Research Center, liberal-leaning voters “strongly” supported Obama in 2008 (69 percent) and 2012 (68 percent), compared to their more lukewarm backing of Hillary Clinton (55 percent) this year and past Democratic nominees John Kerry and Al Gore.
Michelle Obama has always been well-liked. But now, Clinton is regularly quoting Michelle Obama’s signature line (“when they go low, we go high”) and campaigning alongside her. Michelle Obama ranks with her husband, Bill Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren as one of the top surrogates for Clinton.
The president is being regularly asked if his wife will consider a political career. (“She will never run for office,” the president said in a radio interview last week.)
This newfound popularity can’t directly help the Obamas politically if neither is running for office in the future.
But it could help them influence politics and policy in their post-presidency life. Republicans were not looking for George W. Bush's advice after he left in Washington in 2009. They blamed his mistakes for resulting in Obama's election.
In contrast, the Obamas will leave office popular — both with the larger public and within their own party. The "First Couple," in discussing their future plans, seem interested in a ground-up view of national politics and policy. The president is expected to work on helping Democrats win local races, such as state legislative contests, as well as his My Brother’s Keeper Alliance initiative aimed at black and Hispanic young men.
Democrats are likely to support whatever Obama wants to do in the future. And Michelle Obama would have strong backing if she ever changes her mind about running for office.