Barack Obama: The Unspoken Issue In This Year’s Campaign

At InstaPundit, Richard Benedetto makes an interesting point:

Usually when an incumbent president is leaving office and a slew of candidates are battling for his job, that departing chief executive’s record is a major campaign issue.

But not this year, even though two of three Americans say the country is on the wrong track, job creation is sluggish, income inequality continues to rise and Mr. Obama’s job approval barely tops 50%. Moreover, approval of his handling of the war on terror and Islamic State is underwater, and a majority of Americans—white and black—say race relations are getting worse, not better.

When Mr. Obama ran for office in 2008, a central part of his campaign strategy was to heap blame on George W. Bush. How has Mr. Obama dodged similar treatment?

Mr. Benedetto suggests explanations at the link, and Glenn Reynolds adds:

First, [reporters are] Democratic operatives with bylines, and he’s a Democrat. Second, they refuse to let the first black President be remembered as a disaster — even if, as here, he is a disaster.

Donald Trump has, in fact, gone after President Obama frequently. But his criticisms of the president have been overshadowed by his attacks on fellow Republicans, both his opponents for the nomination and President Bush, whom he has maligned wrongly and viciously. As we move into the general election campaign, Trump inevitably will go after Republicans less and Democrats–including Obama along with “Crooked Hillary” Clinton–more.

In my opinion, this is one more factor that gives Trump upside in the general election. Obama’s popularity is mediocre in the polls, hovering around a 50% approval rating. But that overstates his actual standing with voters for several reasons.

First, Obama always polls better than his policies. There are many people who tell pollsters they approve of Obama, while simultaneously saying they disapprove of just about everything he does. I think the reason is the one suggested by Glenn–reporters put everything the first black president does in a favorable light, and voters are inclined to give him, personally, the benefit of the doubt, even though his foreign policy is a disaster, he has repeatedly flouted federal law and the Constitution, and he has overseen the weakest economic recovery of the modern era. This means that the support we see for Obama in polls is largely illusory.

Second, Obama’s approval numbers have consistently been inflated by near-unanimous support from fellow African-Americans, even as they have suffered worse than any other group from his slow-growth economic policies. This poll support should largely melt away once the Democratic candidate is not African-American.

Third, Obama’s opponents have always been more passionate than his supporters. This is reflected in Rasmussen Reports’ approval index, the difference between those who strongly approve of Obama’s performance and those who strongly disapprove. By this measure, Obama has been deeply under water for almost all of his presidency. This graph runs from November 2014 to the present:

Screen Shot 2016-05-22 at 10.05.57 AM

This means that there are many more voters who will be motivated to support a candidate who criticizes Obama than voters who will be motivated to support a candidate who defends him.

In short, while the Obama administration’s record has been mostly absent from the primary campaigns (for obvious reasons, Clinton and Sanders haven’t talked much about it), it should be, and probably will be, front and center during the Trump-Clinton race. And I think that the more he goes after the Obama administration’s record, the better Trump will do.

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