Does Hillary Clinton Need To Distance Herself From Obama?

Bill Scher

Republican operative Ed Rogers writes in The Washington Post that “Hillary Clinton is the most miscast character in the 2016 race” because “this is shaping up to be a change election, and nothing about a Clinton candidacy offers change.”

Rogers doesn’t knock Clinton for her last name. He questions her policy proximity to President Obama. “On our anemic economy, Clinton would be an Obama 2.0; she doesn’t even pretend to be something different or new.” On foreign policy, “Obama’s weakening of America’s place in the world has caused anxiety about our national security, and Clinton can’t disassociate herself from our foreign policy debacles.” Even on political style, Rogers dismisses, “like Obama, Clinton is a divisive figure.”

Now Obama won twice in a row. He’s the first to win two popular vote majorities since Ronald Reagan, and first Democrat since FDR. Why would proximity be so disastrous?

In presuming 2016 will be a “change election,” Rogers points to poll questions that ask if the nation is heading in the “right direction” or on the “wrong track,” and concludes “Poll after poll indicates voter dissatisfaction…”

But the Real Clear Politics average of right direction/wrong track numbers, to which Rogers links, tells a more complicated story.

It’s true that the current numbers aren’t pretty. A whopping 65.7 percent says the country is on the wrong track.

However, four years ago, on the first day of January in another presidential election year, the wrong track numbers were even worse: 70 percent. And 2012 did not end up being a “change election.”

Why not? One reason is poll numbers are not fixed entities. While 2012 started with 70 percent saying the country is on the wrong track, by Election Day that number declined to 54.1 percent.

Nevertheless, in 2012 a majority of voters said the country is on the wrong track, then re-elected the president. That proves some voters believed that while the country was on the wrong track, President Barack Obama was in the midst of righting the ship.

Saying the country is on the wrong track is not the same as concluding the policies of the president and his party are wrong for the country, especially in a time of divided government.

One stark example: in the most recent CNN poll taken just before Christmas, while 75 percent are “dissatisfied with the way the nation is being governed,” 52 percent of voters approved of Obama’s handling of the economy.

You can hate the system and still respect the efforts of the guy trying to push the boulder up the hill.

Rogers is nominally correct that 2016 will be another “change” election, insofar that people are not content with the status quo. It just doesn’t automatically follow that the “change” people are demanding is wholesale and that anything associated with Obama is reviled.

Obama won re-election in 2012 by making the case that no matter how dissatisfied voters may be, the country was indisputably better off than it was four years prior. That’s an even easier case to make today than in 2012.

Between Obama’s inauguration and Election Day 2012, the economy only eked out 1.5 million net new private sector jobs, as the nation had been shedding jobs until the summer of 2010. Since Election Day 2012, the jobs engine has been humming, with 8 million net new private sector jobs.

Sources of economic frustration remain, most noticeably with sluggish wage growth alongside soaring corporate profits. And the economic trajectory of 2016 has yet to be charted; any sudden downturn, even if caused by problems abroad through no fault of Obama’s, would scramble perceptions and political calculations.

But it doesn’t take all that much economic growth for the incumbent party to stay in power. In 2012, election prediction models that use GDP growth from the first three quarters in an election year projected that the average quarterly growth of 1.8 percent – a figure many would call “anemic” – yielded a projection of 51.2 percent of the popular vote for Obama. He ended up with 51.06 percent.

With all that in mind, it’s not surprising that Hillary Clinton is minimizing her distance from the incumbent. The New York Post’s Michael Goodwin characterizes her approach as “Obama-plus”: doing “everything Obama did — then do more of it.”

Recognizing the discontent with the status quo, her platform strategically pinpoints areas of action where progressives and others see unfulfilled promise: backing “an SEC rule requiring publicly traded companies to disclose political spending to shareholders” (the recent omnibus spending includes a rider temporarily blocking the SEC from issuing such a rule); offering $350 billion to help reduce student debt; proposing to close a loophole in Obama’s “Volcker Rule” so “risky trading bets with taxpayer-backed money” can’t be made via hedge funds.

In all these areas, Clinton is less aggressive and progressive than Sen. Bernie Sanders. He tackles campaign finance reform by refusing help from corporate-backed super PACS. He pledges to permanently break up big banks. He promises tuition-free public college for all. Voters who want to see such sweeping change should vote for it on the merits.

Clinton is not the candidate of sweeping change, but of continued change, scratched and clawed out of an unforgiving political system. Voters who find that prospect insufficient to the challenges at hand should feel no obligation to support her in the primary.

But they should not fear that Clinton is incapable of winning the general election because she is too close to Obama. Republicans like Ed Rogers may want to peddle that notion, either to cause mischief in the Democratic primary or simply to convince themselves 2016 is their year. Unfortunately for them, the data just doesn’t back it up.

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