When he was running for re-election in 2012, President Obama famously said it would be his “last political campaign no matter what,” adding, “I’ve got nothing else to run for.”
As it turns out, he does have something else to campaign for: his legacy.
With high approval ratings and a close ally running for President, Obama has hit the campaign trail this year twice for Hillary Clinton since the Democratic National Convention, and he’s expected to make at least a dozen more appearances for her before Election Day.
Along the way, the President is participating in fundraisers and urging support for down-ballot candidates, using his high popularity to benefit Democrats across the board. After doing a round of fundraisers for Democratic candidates in Chicago last weekend, Obama will be out on the trail again on Tuesday speaking at a campaign event in support of Clinton and Senate candidates in North Carolina.
Obama considers this election extremely high stakes — not just because the next President will in many ways solidify his legacy on a number of issues, but because he believes electing Republican nominee Donald Trump would hurt the country.
“I know that it’s a cliché to say that every four years, that ‘this is the most important election in your lifetimes,’” Obama said Sunday at an event for Democratic Senate candidate Tammy Duckworth. “This is the most important election, though.”
In speeches both touting his own policy and championing Clinton, Obama likes to list off his Administration’s accomplishments — shepherding a recovery from one of the nation’s worst economic downturns and the rebound of the auto industry, getting gay marriage across the country, the assassination of Osama bin Laden and the completion of the Iran nuclear deal.
At a rally for Clinton in Philadelphia last month, Obama said his Administration has shown that “progress is possible,” but Trump’s campaign had reminded him how quickly that could be reversed. “The choice that you make — that we make,” Obama said in Philadelphia in September, “will determine the direction of this country for a long time.”
Despite their bitter 2008 primary election battle, Clinton and Obama respect each other both as colleagues and peers. The President is also sure that Clinton would be prepared to take over for him as soon as his term is up — in fact, he’s called her the most qualified person ever to run for President. He really wants her to win.
“Like, I — this is not me going through the motions here — I really, really, really want to elect Hillary Clinton,” he said in September. But he appears to be equally motivated by Trump’s campaign. He’s called the Republican nominee unprepared and insecure and said Trump is a poor role model for American kids. He has suggested Trump is a shill for Russian President Vladimir Putin who poses a threat to our national security. “He’s not offering any real policies or plans, just offering division and offering fear,” Obama has said. “And he’s betting that if he scares enough people, he might just scare up enough votes to win this election.”
This level of involvement is unusual in recent history. Though President Bill Clinton had relatively high approval ratings ahead of the 2000 election, the scandals that marked his time in the White House led Vice President Al Gore to distance himself. President George W. Bush was deeply unpopular in 2008, and though he was an effective fundraiser, Senator John McCain felt it was better to keep him off the trail.
This time around, however, the candidates themselves are far less popular than the President — whose approval ratings have hovered around 50% throughout the year. “[President Obama] is actively campaigning because his approval rating is high and only seems to be made higher because of the negativity of this campaign cycle,” says Georgetown government professor Michele Swers.
“The President knows firsthand how important it is not to take a single vote for granted, and his call to the American people to get engaged and vote is consistent with the message he has been delivering to the American people since his speech in Springfield and the Democratic convention,” said White House spokeswoman Jennifer Friedman. “This is exactly the message he will be conveying for the weeks ahead to African Americans, young people and people of all ages who need an extra boost to remember what is at stake.”
That high approval rating makes it easier, too, for the President to shore up support all the way down the ticket. Obama and Vice President Joe Biden have endorsed 25 candidates including congressional candidates, Democratic mayors and even a handful of state legislators.
While Obama is giving the campaign trail all he’s got, with more appearances expected in battleground states in the lead-up to the election — an event scheduled in Florida was canceled last week because of Hurricane Matthew — Swers says the success of Clinton’s campaign still rests with the candidate.
“The main onus for winning the campaign is still Hillary’s,” she says. “I don’t think Obama would get a lot of the credit if she wins or loses.”