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How President Obama's Legacy Will Define the 2016 Election

He won't be on the ballot next year but President Obama's legacy will define the 2016 presidential election.
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His name won't be on the ballot on November 8, 2016, but Barack Obama will be one of the most important factors in who becomes the next president of the United States.

Voters will likely face a choice between Hillary Clinton, who served in Obama's cabinet and has said she will look to build on the president's policies on many issues, and a Republican candidate who has pledged to repeal the Affordable Care Act, suspend Obama's executive actions on immigration and climate change, and sever the nuclear accord with Iran.

Watch the second installment of Lester Holt's interview with President Obama on the "NBC Nightly News" at 6:30 p.m. ET.

Obama’s legacy is complicated, creating challenges and opportunities for both parties.

Image: Obama walks to the Oval Office
President Barack Obama walks to the Oval Office at the White House in Washington on Oct. 21, 2015.SAUL LOEB / AFP - Getty Images

The Upside for Democrats

The most obvious boon for the eventual Democratic nominee is that the president has strongly embraced a changing America, where a growing number of people are openly gay, lesbian or transgender, either non-religious or practicing a faith other than Christianity, and non-white.

His support for gay marriage, measures to legalize the largely Latino population of undocumented immigrants and appointments of Asians, blacks, gays and Latinos to key posts, often for the first time in U.S. history, has solidified the Democratic Party as the one perceived as more inclusive. That gives Clinton, or whoever is the Democratic nominee, a key advantage in swing states like Virginia or Florida.

It’s not only that the growing number of minority voters back Democrats, but that many moderate white voters are also likely to favor gay marriage and be wary of measures like those favored by Donald Trump that would limit the rights of Latino migrants.

On these cultural issues, the official positions of the Republican Party, like opposition to gay marriage, will force the GOP nominee to campaign on positions that are in the minority among Americans.

"I believe we will never again elect a president that opposes same-sex marriage. The rhetoric has cooled some, but the Republicans are still more than a couple of steps behind the country, and dozens of steps behind younger Americans of both parties. Watching a politician explain to younger voters why they oppose marriage equality is so uncomfortable it makes you cringe, it's almost as if they are speaking two separate languages," says Dan Pfeiffer, who was President Obama's top political adviser until earlier this year.

The Downside for Democrats

For Democrats, the most obvious challenge posed by Obama’s legacy is on foreign policy.

U.S. presidents have limited power to alter events abroad. But the rise of the Islamic State, an increasingly assertive Russia and sectarian conflicts throughout the Middle East have happened on Obama’s watch. On the campaign trail, Marco Rubio, one of the leading GOP 2016 candidates, says all these crises show America is being "humiliated" by foreign leaders.

And Obama’s foreign affairs record includes a number of blunders, perhaps most notably when referred to ISIS as a “jayvee team” only eight months before he was forced to start U.S. airstrikes to fight the Sunni insurgent organization.

Clinton of course was both the president’s secretary of state and a key architect of the Iran nuclear agreement. She has already started campaigning against some of Obama’s foreign policy moves, arguing the president and his team should have been forceful in taking on Russian President Vladimir Putin and not allowed relations to become so tense between the U.S. and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

But it will be hard for Clinton to suggest every mistake in Obama’s foreign affairs approach happened after she left the State Department in 2013.

Obama’s emphasis on diplomacy and cautious posture in terms of intervention abroad were what he campaigned on: a complete reverse from the muscular, aggressive foreign policy of George W. Bush. The president has brought most U.S. troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan and not started another war effort with large numbers of troops.

So the Republican candidates must avoid seemingly like they will repeat Bush’s approach, which the public strongly opposed. If they oppose the nuclear deal, GOP candidates must illustrate how they can restrain Iran's weapons development without starting a war.

Political scientists argue that one of the most important factors determining which party will win a presidential election is the economy. And on this issue, the Obama legacy is mixed. He has presided over a recovery from the deep recession that started in 2008. Because of that job growth and Obamacare, the number of Americans without health insurance has plunged downward.

At the same time, wages in the middle-class have been largely stagnant and many of the gains in the recovery have gone to the wealthy, as even Clinton has argued.

"Our poor families are becoming poorer, and 70 percent of us are earning the same, or less than we were 12 years ago. We need new leadership, and we need action," said ex-Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley in last month's Democratic primary debate, using words Republicans will likely repeat next fall in suggesting Obama's party should not have a third straight term in the White House.

The Uncertain Big Picture

These policy results in part shape a fourth critical factor that will help determine which party wins the White House: Obama’s overall approval rating. Currently, between 45 and 50 percent of Americans approve of the president. If he maintains that number, he will be much more popular than Bush, who had just a 25 percent approval rate when Obama was elected in November 2008.

At the same time, Obama is unlikely to reach 57 percent, the approval ratings of both Ronald Reagan in November 1988 and Bill Clinton in November 2000. Both of those presidents' designated successors won the popular vote, although Gore’s eventually lost the Electoral College, and the White House, to George W. Bush.

Obama, according to his aides, is deeply invested in having a Democrat succeed him, aware that some of his biggest accomplishments, like Obamacare, could be reversed by a GOP president and Republican-controlled Congress.

What is unknown is how he will position himself over the next year, aware that his decisions will affect the prospects of the Democratic nominee. The president has been very aggressive in his seventh year, speaking out bluntly on racial issues that he had often been silent about before, pushing through the Iran deal, fighting for the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership and proposing to make community college free and universal.

He is already intent on pushing through either this year or next a bipartisan bill that would reduce jail sentences for non-violent offenders of drug crimes. And the president is considering an executive action to expand background checks for gun sales, taking on an issue that many Democrats say hurts their chances of winning elections.

Obama’s actions next year may have little impact. There appear to be relatively few swing voters in America, so a large swath of the country’s vote is already known, a year from the election. It’s hard to see either the Democratic or Republican presidential nominee getting below 45 percent of the vote.

But Obama’s legacy is already on the ballot next year, even if he is not. Clinton is not his vice-president, but some of Obama’s top staffers now work for her, and she is campaigning to expand his policies, particularly on economic and cultural issues.

Perhaps the most consequential president of this era was Ronald Reagan and that was in part because George H.W. Bush, Reagan's vice-president, was in office and achieved one of Reagan’s biggest goals: the fall of the Soviet Union. Obama is already a historic figure, for having been the first non-white person elected president. But his push to make American more inclusive would look even successful if he helped ensure his successor was the first female president.