Hillary Clinton was backed into a corner. Her primary opponent—Bernie Sanders—was running on the idea that the nation was fundamentally broken. According to Sanders, our democracy was rigged, our economy was crippled, and unfairness and injustice prevailed on everything from health care to criminal justice. These things didn’t demand a continuation of current policies, or even substantive reforms, they needed revolution. His message resonated amongst the disaffected, those who had felt left behind from President Obama’s so-called recovery. And so Clinton had to find a useful political foil.
She believed she found one in Obama. Early in her candidacy she purposefully and repeatedly embraced the president’s record on everything from the economic recovery to his efforts to reform Wall Street. She even defended him on points where she’s clearly disagreed with him in the past, including on the Syrian “red line” and the recent Iranian nuclear deal. Most notably, she positioned herself a the defender of the Affordable Care Act, someone who would build off of it rather than scrap it in favor of a single-payer system. In sum, the message was clear: Clinton was championing the president’s record, and positioning herself as a steward of his legacy.
It was a calculated gamble, one built upon Obama’s high approval rating among Democrats and the party’s investment in his legacy. But it isn’t without tremendous risks as Clinton transitioned into the general election.
Two-thirds of Americans think the country is on the wrong track, a startlingly high number for Democrats given that one of their own has been at the helm for eight years. There’s also the matter of the recent CNN poll showing that 45 percent of those who voted in the Democratic primaries still say they wish the party’s nominee was Sanders. Just 49 percent say they prefer Clinton, a sign that she’s still not beloved or trusted by many Democrat voters. And more generally, Obama’s record of transactional progress rather than wholesale improvement, isn’t exactly a firm launching point for an “eight more years”-type argument. As Brian Beutler writes for the progressive magazine New Republic:
Obama’s mythos is elemental to his appeal. Take it away, and the political durability of his America becomes much shakier. Obama did save the country from depression, but he didn’t preside over economic boom times. The Affordable Care Act is a triumph, but it has not made health insurance universal, or eliminated crippling exposure to high medical costs. The economy has improved, but economic anxiety (the real kind, not the kind that’s used to explain away pervasive racism) is still very much with us. And wages have only recently started to climb, and slowly.
Despite the risks, Clinton is clinging to Obama’s legacy, in part because she’s playing the race conservatively (content to let Trump lose, rather than proactively go after new voters) and in part because she can’t back away now. So there she was at the conclusion of Obama’s Wednesday night speech, wrapping him in a bear hug, the perfect metaphor for holding on tight to the status quo.
But that embrace could come back to bite her if a slew of bad economic headlines continues into the fall. Ed Rogers writes for the Washington Post:
Notwithstanding all the happy talk about the economy from the Democrats, Gallup found that 60 percent of Americans think economic conditions in this country are “getting worse.” That’s 60 percent of people who will be resistant to Clinton’s economic plans. Americans can see what is happening. The typical American might not be able to quote statistics about how if the labor force participation rate were the same today as it was when Obama took office, the unemployment rate would be 9.2 percent instead of 4.9 percent or rattle off statistics about the decline in median household income under President Obama, but they can tell you firsthand about small businesses that have closed in their communities, friends who can’t find work, and their own financial struggles. And nothing they hear from Clinton makes them believe things are going to get better.
Sadly, given the latest news that the economy grew at an anemic 1.2 percent annual rate (far below economists 2.6 percent growth projection) it’s hard to see how they could get much worse. And that’s a fact that Hillary Clinton probably doesn’t want to be latching on to.