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How Obama's DNC Speech Broke From History

Sitting presidents in modern history are typically so unpopular by the end of their second terms that new nominees typically seek to stay far away.
Image: President Barack Obama addresses the DNC on July 27, 2016
President Barack Obama addresses the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia on July 27, 2016.ROBYN BECK / AFP - Getty Images

President Obama's big speech boosting Hillary Clinton at the Democratic National Convention wasn't the capstone to his political career, a finale to his historic two-term presidency. It was the grand opening of his highly unusual role in the 2016 presidential campaign.

Rarely is there such an alignment between a sitting president and his would-be successor. In 2008, John McCain avoided the unpopular George W. Bush. In 2000, Al Gore dodged the scandal-stained Bill Clinton. But this time around, the Democratic president and the Democratic presidential nominee seem downright eager for the former to ensure the latter's election.

Soundbites and snapshots from President Obama’s speech on Wednesday night could have been mistaken for his own in 2008. Both featured thunderous applause as he walked to the podium while the crowd chanted “Yes, we can!” Both saw Obama energizing the audience with his familiar “I love you back." Both speeches hit on themes like hope, optimism and a belief in American exceptionalism.

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In so many ways, Obama's speech felt familiar. But in other ways, it was quite rare. After all, sitting presidents in modern history are typically so unpopular by the end of their second terms that new nominees typically seek to stay as far away as they can from the presidents of their own parties.

In 2008, for instance, Sen. John McCain seemed to keep as far away from George W. Bush as humanly possible. Bush, whose second term average approval rating was a dismal 37 percent in the aftermath of the Iraq War and Hurricane Katrina, spoke at the GOP convention but by satellite. Meanwhile, McCain used a common phrase as he stumped to get the message across: “I am not George Bush.”

In 2000, Al Gore largely kept away from his boss, President Bill Clinton. While Clinton maintained a high approval rating at the end of his second term, as the country was strong economically, his affair with intern Monica Lewinsky still haunted Clinton and made Gore wary. On the day Gore announced his candidacy, he voiced his disappointment over Clinton’s behavior. Clinton spoke at the convention, but it wasn't billed to the extent of Obama’s. And during his speech, Clinton seemingly made note of his reputation, “Whatever you think of me, keep putting people first, keep building those bridges and don’t stop think about tomorrow.”

Today, however, Obama has a 51 percent approval rating, according to Gallup -- up 5 points from four years ago. Perhaps more telling is that his approval ratings among Democrats is above 90 percent.

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“He’s in the unusual position of being very popular at this time and there isn’t this kind of controversy that might cause Hillary to distance herself from him,” said Julian Zelizer, a political historian at Princeton University.

“Ike, Reagan, Clinton, GW Bush all gave farewell speeches…I believe that Obama’s was the strongest convention endorsement speech for a preferred successor that any president has ever given,” said NBC News presidential historian Michael Beschloss.

Even back in 1988, when George H.W. Bush won the presidency with an endorsement from President Ronald Reagan, things got a little awkward. As the New York Times reported in 1988, many Republicans at a black-tie fundraiser "expressed surprise that Mr. Reagan had not delivered a longer or more effusive endorsement of his vice president. In fact, the endorsement consisted of only one paragraph, in which Mr. Reagan mispronounced the vice president’s name, saying it as if it rhymed with ‘rush.’”

But perhaps most blatant was Dwight Eisenhower, who notoriously took a dig at Vice President Richard Nixon’s campaign in 1960 when asked to come up with an idea Nixon gave to his administration. “If you give me a week, I might think of one. I don’t remember,” he said.

Of course, Obama -– who is expected to be a mainstay on Clinton’s campaign trail, and for whom Clinton served for four years as secretary of state — could have drawbacks in that Clinton could be painted as a third-term Obama during what seems like a "change" election. If things go poorly, Clinton could become vulnerable. But the payoff could be big.

“I expect Barack Obama to campaign more strenuously for his chosen candidate than any other president in modern times,” said Beschloss. “The political calculus here is that if President Obama can help Hillary Clinton to reassemble the coalition that elected him in 2012, she wins.”