President Obama expects to get a few dings from his successor and he doesn’t mind it. He told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos he understands that the next Democratic presidential nominee will need to distance herself from him. The next candidate will want an opportunity to describe what he or she believes in and the public wants to inhale what Obama called “that new car smell.”
Let the Olfactory Primary begin! The public certainly likes a new new thing, though after trying out a one-term senator with no executive experience, the voters in 2016 might be looking for more time-tested qualities. But whatever the waft of the Hillary mobile, it will be hitched to the Obama wagon. That’s true of any Democratic nominee, but particularly true for Clinton, who served as his secretary of state.
President Obama and any Democratic successor will be closely connected for all of the obvious reasons—they will share roughly the same philosophy; they will have both fought Republican opponents—but also because of the growth of the imperial presidency. The more presidents act alone, the more their policies live or die depending on the views of the next president. The president’s recent decision not to deport millions of undocumented immigrants could be undone by the next president. So too could some of his environmental regulations. Both of those issues are important to key constituencies in the Obama coalition—Latinos and younger voters—so the next Democratic nominee will promise to uphold them.
Though the Affordable Care Act is a piece of legislation, the president has shown how it can be protected through executive modifications, a tradition his successor could continue. Plus, the law will continue to face existential threats from Republicans, which means its survival may also be dependent on the shield of the presidential veto.
Each Democratic candidate who hopes to have a chance will run supporting Obama’s positions on health care, immigration, and climate change. Given those positions on the big things, any move to distance themselves from Obama will seem puny by comparison. In newsrooms, editors will monitor the micrometers between the faintest policy differences, and they will shout emergency orders to make a big deal about it. But despite all the talk about distancing, candidates will learn what Democratic senators up for re-election learned this fall: Resistance is futile. If there is a D next to your name, you can’t really get that far from the president. Over the next two years, if you could capture the relative political distance between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in Hyperlapse, it would look like two figures standing in place with a blast from the flash cameras every time one or the other made the smallest wiggle but retaining their essential original posture.
Even if they are not trying to distance themselves from an unpopular incumbent, candidates do sometimes have different views and whether by design or accident they will define themselves as what the president is not. Obama’s aides say the president understands this: He is supposedly prepared to endure some criticism and even the occasional blow or two to his ego because the best way to lock in his legacy is if a Democrat is elected. As Taylor Branch wrote in The Clinton Tapes, Bill Clinton once told Al Gore, “Al, I would let you flog me at noon right on the doorstep of the Washington Post.”
That equanimity sounds good now, but it might be hard to sustain that Zen posture. In the end, what makes it hard for presidents is not just enduring the abuse but the idea that the current nominee could be running a better campaign. However much Gore’s distancing might have hurt Clinton personally, he also thought the Gore team was politically stupid to run away from the president and he imagined he could do some good out there campaigning for Gore on the campaign trail. Obama may feel the same way; he may stay mum, but his loyal aides will provide the anonymous quotes.
It will also be hard for Obama to sit still. During the final months of the 2014 races, Obama could barely move without it becoming a campaign story. That will kick in even faster before 2016. Taking abuse is easy; willfully dressing up in the lame-duck costume every day to sit mute at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. is much harder.
Given that Clinton can’t easily distance herself from Obama, the challenge for her candidacy is how to build a vision for the future that is so interesting and consuming that voters pay attention to that above all else. As Clinton pointed out months ago, answering “why” she is running is the crucial question for voters and herself. Democratic operatives in the Obama orbit and outside have said it appeared there was no answer to this important question, which they said was a fatal flaw. But recently three different Democratic veterans have pointed to the speech Clinton gave during a campaign stop for Tom Wolf, the incoming governor of Pennsylvania, describing it as the most passionate, personal, and complete rationale for her Clinton’s candidacy they’ve seen since the dying days of her 2008 campaign.
If Clinton does wind up criticizing President Obama more explicitly, it will offer an echo and a payback. In the 2008 race, Sen. Obama distanced himself from the Clintons. In The Audacity of Hope, Obama wrote about getting out from under the baby boomer self-obsession of the 1990s—a clear reference to the Clinton years—and he campaigned against “triangulation and poll-driven politics.” Those words were synonymous with Bill Clinton and pejorative because, as Obama explained in one debate, that strategy sought to build power for Clinton and not for the party or a set of ideas. It is because of this worldview that Obama famously picked Ronald Reagan over Clinton when talking about leaders who had genuinely transformed the country. That is why the president has such an intimate understanding of the power of the “new car smell.” He came to power by selling it.