clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Barack Obama’s Last Stand

What the sitting president will do for Hillary Clinton and his own legacy in this election — and how he can expose Donald Trump

Getty Images
Getty Images

You may have heard that we’ll be holding a presidential election in November. Perhaps you’re familiar with the candidates.

Hillary Rodham Clinton, the former first lady, senator, and secretary of state, is on the verge of becoming the first woman to win a major party’s nomination for president. Clinton is tireless, brilliant, and a lightning rod for criticism and controversy, real and imagined. While her views and voting record are those of a fairly conventional, mainstream Democrat, she’s been attacked by the left for being too hawkish and cozy with Wall Street, and by the right for every single thing you could possibly imagine (and many you can’t). Just a guess, but two decades of unrelenting insults and accusations may have contributed to her overly cautious, guarded persona — making her the most famous woman in the world whom few people really know.

On the other side, Republicans have chosen to go in a bit of a different direction. From a field of 17 governors, senators, business leaders, and brain surgeons, the party of Lincoln has chosen Donald of House Trump, Builder of Walls, Banner of Muslims, King of Debt, Father of Trolls, and Little-Fingered Tweeter of Sick Burns, Wack-Job Conspiracies, and White Resentment. In this campaign, Trump has been called “utterly amoral,” a “con artist,” a “fraud,” a “pathological liar,” a “serial philanderer,” a “narcissistic egomaniac,” a “race-baiting, xenophobic, religious bigot,” the “Kim Kardashian of politics,” “ISIL Man of the Year,” a “cancer on conservatism,” and an “orange-faced windbag” who shouldn’t have access to the nuclear codes. And those are just the views of his fellow Republicans.

The race as it stands today, however, is close — nationally, and in the states that matter. Polls show that Trump, who won only around 40 percent of the primary vote, is now drawing support from about 85 percent of Republicans and a large portion of Republican-leaning independents. Clinton, still fending off a primary challenge from Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, is winning only between 50 and 70 percent of his supporters, most of whom are young, liberal, and independent.

But the race is about to enter a new phase. A not-so-bold prediction: Shortly after the polls close in New Jersey on the night of June 7, Clinton will have the 2,383 delegates needed to clinch the Democratic nomination. She won’t even need to wait for California. At that point, Sanders will have a choice: He can spend the next two months arguing that superdelegates should wrest the nomination from the candidate who is hundreds of delegates and millions of votes ahead, or he can begin to play a role in unifying the party and shaping its platform. I believe he’ll do the latter and keep his promise from April: “I will do everything in my power and work as hard as I can to make sure [a Trump presidency] does not happen. And if Secretary Clinton is the nominee, I will certainly support her.”

Either way, Clinton’s primary victory will allow her to assemble a Democratic Dream Team of political talent to rally the party and take on Trump. She’ll have Bill Clinton, a popular ex-president who can testify to her character and defend her record better than anyone (his speech defending President Obama’s at the 2012 convention is the stuff of legend); Elizabeth Warren, a liberal icon in the Senate who has already begun to prosecute the party’s sharpest case against Trump; Joe Biden, a beloved vice president with a working-class, tell-it-like-it-is, God-knows-what-he’ll-say kind of appeal; and a running mate — whether it’s someone like Warren, Virginia Senator Tim Kaine, Labor Secretary Tom Perez, or Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown — who will be well suited for the traditional role of attack dog.

Clinton will also have by her side the best political player in the game: Barack Obama.

In a few months, my old boss will hit the trail for the last time as president. He’ll do so with an approval rating that has been north of 50 percent nearly every week since March, a high he’d previously reached only in the months after his first and second elections. Political scientists point to a strong historical correlation between an outgoing president’s popularity and the final vote share of his party’s candidate. (You can read the full University of Virginia study here, but the upshot is this: If Obama is at 50 percent, Clinton is predicted to win 50.1 percent of the vote; at 45 percent, she gets 49.2 percent.)

Obama’s recent surge in popularity has been driven largely by independents, young people, women, and Latinos — four groups most likely to tip the election toward Clinton. He has an 82 percent approval rating among Sanders supporters, whom he’ll work to persuade as America’s most famous Clinton convert — someone who also waged a brutal primary against her, but eventually became a friend, partner, and champion.

I don’t want to overestimate the Obama effect. No one can win this for Clinton but Clinton. Even the UVA study stipulates that election outcomes ultimately depend on the quality of the campaigns and the popularity of the candidates on the ballot.

But I suspect that the president will give this campaign all that he has and more — for Clinton, for his own legacy, and for the vision of America that he’s asked us to believe in since the night he stepped onto the national stage in Boston and delivered his 2004 convention speech, a hopeful, bighearted vision that is the antithesis of everything that Trump represents.

The truth is, Obama has understood better than most the forces that gave rise to a candidacy like Trump’s. Since his earliest days in public life, he’s been focused on the hollowing out of the middle class in a global economy, and America’s ability to embrace its growing diversity. He ran for president as an outsider who grasped people’s frustration with Washington’s broken politics and the politicians who exploit fear and anger to incite suspicion and division. As he said in his announcement speech, “We’ve been told that climate change is a hoax, and that tough talk … can replace diplomacy. … We’ve been told that our crises are somebody else’s fault … and told to blame the other party, or gay people, or immigrants.” That was nearly 10 years ago.

Obama, contrary to what some might think, was never so naive or arrogant as to believe that his election would solve these problems. He knew that it would take time. He knew that he would make mistakes and disappoint some people. He knew that he would face a wall of opposition. He may even have sensed that parts of that opposition would have darker, conspiratorial roots — roots that led to the president’s very legitimacy as an American citizen being seriously questioned, the original lie upon which the entire fraud that is the Trump candidacy was built.

The difference with Trump is that everything is about I. I’m the best. I’m rich. I’m right. I can fix it. I can win. I can handle those other people. I can make those other countries pay. As he said the other day, “I will give you everything. I will give you what you’ve been looking for for 50 years. I’m the only one.”

Getty Images
Getty Images

It’s not just a maddeningly vague and moronic way to run for office, but a recipe for perpetual discontent, since even strong, brilliant leaders cannot bend the world to their will. It’s a fundamental misunderstanding of how our democracy works. Because it’s not democracy. It’s what places ruled by demagogues and tyrants look like.

Democracy is not about I or us vs. them. Democracy, as Obama often says, is about the word we. It is big, messy, and noisy. It is inclusive, welcoming, and tolerant. It’s about a willingness to compromise and assume good faith in others. It’s about a belief that America is not the project of any one person, party, race, or religion — that we all have a responsibility to find a way forward, together, even if we don’t get everything we want, even if we don’t always win the argument, even if sometimes we take two steps back.

Barack Obama was making the case against Trump’s candidacy long before it ever existed. But the first time I noticed the contrast was last June, about a week after the world’s most insecure billionaire rode down his escalator and into our nightmares.

I saw the president at a fundraiser in Los Angeles. He looked like he didn’t want to be there. It was the day after nine people had been gunned down at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Another mass shooting. Another push for gun safety that would go nowhere in Congress. Another call for a national conversation on race, even though our national conversation had long ago devolved into cable news screaming matches and internet flame wars.

In a set of wandering, off-the-cuff remarks, Obama told the crowd about his response to a letter from a former supporter who was discouraged because he said that the president had failed to fix Washington and get more done: “I reminded him that when I ran in 2008, I, in fact, did not say I would fix it; I said we could fix it.” He was right, and I got his point, but it came off as defensive and frustrated. He seemed tired.

Later, Obama heard about what Nadine Collier had said when she first saw her mother’s killer in a South Carolina courtroom: “I forgive you.” The following Friday, he delivered a eulogy in Charleston that he ended by leading the church in a chorus of “Amazing Grace.” It was the same day the Supreme Court ruled that the right to marry the person you love is enshrined in the Constitution, on the heels of the court upholding a crucial portion of the Affordable Care Act. The same week, Alabama and South Carolina began the process to remove the Confederate flag from their capitol grounds. And that evening, the first black president of the United States returned home to a White House that was bathed in rainbow lights.

The media called it the best week of his presidency. But as Obama has acknowledged, none of the victories were his alone. He was late to embrace marriage equality, nudged along by his daughters. It was two Republican governors who answered the call to take down the flag. Health care reform had been pushed forward by leaders in both parties for more than a century. And every one of these achievements was the work of millions whose names we may never know: family members who petitioned Congress because of medical bills that sick loved ones couldn’t pay; gay men and women who found the courage to come out, making it easier for others to do the same; black and white Americans who marched and bled and even died so that we all might be treated as equally as we were created.

Such is the path of progress in America — slow, difficult, collective, and always unfinished. It doesn’t come from sudden revolutions or charismatic strongmen. It comes from the quiet, persistent effort of citizens and leaders who are flawed and fallible human beings, but nevertheless press on, believing that for all the days filled with setbacks and disappointments, there will be some days when, to paraphrase the president’s favorite King quote, we have bent the long arc of the moral universe ever slightly toward justice.

Barack Obama has been making this case his entire life. Now, in the twilight of his presidency, he’ll have the chance to deliver his closing argument to the American people, and help bend that arc one last time.

Jon Favreau was President Obama’s chief speechwriter from 2005 to 2013. He is the cohost of The Ringer’s Keepin’ It 1600 podcast, and the cofounder of the speechwriting and communications firm Fenway Strategies.