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Why Obama campaigning for Clinton is unusual — and historic

Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

President Obama’s speech at the Democratic National Convention tonight won’t be his last on behalf of Hillary Clinton. As he gets ready to leave office, he’s going to be spending plenty of time on the campaign trail, persuading voters to elect the woman who’s essentially planning to govern as a third Obama term.

Obama is clearly eager to get on and make that case. Not only is electing a Democratic successor crucial to preserve his policies and legacy, but Obama also seems to get a particular charge out of attacking Donald Trump — something he’s already done at graduation speeches and on campaign-style stops.

But in doing so, he’s engaging in an activity that few incumbent presidents have ever done. Obama is the rare two-term president who is both healthy enough and popular enough to campaign for his potential successor. The only parallel that comes close is Ronald Reagan campaigning for George H.W. Bush in 1988 — a parallel that augurs well for Clinton, particularly because Obama is campaigning harder than the 77-year-old Reagan did.

That said, it’s still unclear if this strategy will work or backfire. Making the case that Clinton will essentially amount to a third Obama term is politically risky. Obama, though, seems to think it’s worth the risk.

Truman and George W. Bush were too unpopular to help, and their successors lost

Truman at 1952 convention
The last night of the Democratic National Convention in 1952, with Truman and Stevenson in a rare joint appearance.
New York Daily News archive via Getty Images

Since World War II, there have been seven presidents who served more than one full term and could have campaigned for their successors: Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama.

But most of those presidents saw only limited time on the trail — because they were unpopular, aging, ill, or all of the above.

Truman, for instance, certainly wanted to campaign for his potential successor in 1952. "I am going to take my coat off and do everything I can to help him win," he said of Adlai Stevenson, the Democrats’ nominee. Truman was a tireless campaigner, and he took long train trips with dozens of stops to remind audiences of everything the Democrats had done for them and to exhort them to vote for Stevenson.

The problem was Stevenson didn’t want Truman’s help. By February 1952, Truman’s approval ratings had bottomed out at an all-time low of 22 percent. Inflation was rising, the Korean War was a stalemate, and the IRS was in the middle of a long-running corruption scandal. (Truman was initially expected to run in 1952 himself, but lost the New Hampshire primary and withdrew from the race.) Stevenson kept trying to distance himself from Truman; Truman, stung by the rejection, wrote multiple letters, never sent, expressing his irritation.

"I can't stand snub after snub by you. … It seems to me that the Democratic Candidate is above associating with the lowly President of the United States," Truman complained in one letter. In the end, Stevenson lost to Dwight D. Eisenhower in a landslide.

In 1968, Lyndon Johnson could have run for reelection, but with opposition to the Vietnam War rising, he faced a challenge he was likely to lose in the New Hampshire primary. So he decided not to run; with his presidential legacy in shambles, he stayed off the campaign trail.

The situation George W. Bush confronted in 2008 was not quite as bad, if only because Bush couldn’t have run that year if he wanted to. His approval ratings were scraping near Truman-esque lows. Bush endorsed John McCain, somewhat awkwardly, but then mostly stayed away from the campaign, save for headlining some Republican fundraisers. By late October, the two had appeared together only twice, and one of those times was a meeting on the financial crisis that also included Obama.

McCain, of course, also lost. Trying to succeed an unpopular two-term president is hard, whether that president joins the campaign or stays on the sidelines.

Al Gore ran away from Bill Clinton (and Monica Lewinsky)

Gore campaigning under umbrella
I’m not saying Gore stayed away from Clinton, but there are almost no photos of them campaigning together from 2000 in the Getty Images archive.
New York Daily News archive via Getty Images

Then there were the presidents who were popular enough that they could have helped their hypothetical successors, but — for whatever reason — they didn’t: Dwight Eisenhower and Bill Clinton.

In 1960, Eisenhower was tremendously popular, leaving office with a 59 percent approval rating. But he didn’t campaign at all for Richard Nixon, his vice president and the Republican nominee that year.

In fact, at one point Eisenhower even undermined his successor’s campaign. Nixon, facing the 43-year-old John F. Kennedy, had tried to emphasize that after eight years as vice president, he had the relevant experience to be president on day one.

So reporters asked Eisenhower what Nixon had done while in office. And Eisenhower seemed irked that reporters didn’t understand that the president made all the decisions in the White House. He repeatedly said he trusted Nixon as a top adviser but drew a blank — publicly — when pressed for specifics on which decisions he influenced. "If you give me a week, I might think of one," Eisenhower said. "I don't remember."

Eisenhower’s health was also a limiting factor: Eisenhower had already had a heart attack, and after seeing campaign literature smearing Nixon, he had heart palpitations. His doctor forbade him from campaigning, and Eisenhower’s wife persuaded Nixon’s wife to stop Nixon from asking the president for help. Nixon lost, narrowly, and Eisenhower’s inability to fight for his potential successor was cited as one contributing factor.

Then there’s Al Gore in 2000. Gore was trying to succeed a popular president during a period of economic prosperity. Bill Clinton’s approval numbers remained high throughout the Monica Lewinsky scandal and his ensuing impeachment. Yet polls suggested that voters were tired of the Clinton circus of scandal, and Gore, who had suffered a fundraising scandal of his own, was both personally upset by the Lewinsky affair and afraid it would tarnish his chances.

The New York Times summed up the state of affairs in a brutal opening paragraph to an article in October 2000: "After eight years together, here is the state of the relationship between President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore: Mr. Gore won't pick up the phone. He doesn't call, and Mr. Clinton doesn't know why."

Gore’s campaign … well, we all know how that ended.

George H.W. Bush ran for a Reagan third term. Reagan helped. And he won.

Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and Barbara Bush
Reagan on the campaign trail with George H.W. Bush in 1988.
Dirck Halstead/Getty Images

Perhaps the closest parallel to Obama and Hillary Clinton today was Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, his vice president, in the election of 1988.

Reagan was 77 when he left office, and by some accounts his health was already failing. His initial, lukewarm endorsement of Bush — during which, inexplicably, he mispronounced his vice president’s last name — was not auspicious. (He pronounced "Bush" like "blush.")

By the end of the campaign, however, Reagan, whose approval rating had risen throughout 1988 to more than 60 percent, was campaigning hard. Between Labor Day and Election Day, he traveled at least 25,000 miles. "He is running so hard it is easy to forget that he, not Bush, is the surrogate," the Los Angeles Times wrote.

Reagan was not campaigning out of affection for Bush but, like Obama, to defend his legacy. And George H.W. Bush, like Hillary Clinton, was essentially arguing that if Americans wanted the policies of the previous administration to continue, they should vote for him. "A vote for Bush is a vote for Reagan," one rallygoer told the Chicago Tribune approvingly.

And Bush, unlike the other candidates above, won.

Can Obama-Clinton repeat the success of Reagan-Bush?

President Obama Campaigns With Hillary Clinton In Charlotte
Stronger together — in more ways than one?
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Obama is not Reagan-level popular, but, like Reagan, his numbers have been rising throughout his final year in office. For the first time since 2013, more people approve than disapprove of his performance. (Perhaps the presence of Donald Trump has convinced some people that the status quo isn’t all that bad.)

Nor has Obama’s final term been marred by new scandals, as Reagan’s was by Iran-Contra and the resignation of his attorney general. That puts Obama in, historically, an unusual position: Not only is he able to help Clinton run for office, but she appears to actually welcome the help.

Democrats are hoping to capitalize on that approval. Clinton, a liberal candidate, is running essentially a conservative campaign on behalf of the Obama-era status quo — continuing his policies on health care, climate change, and so forth. (This was one of her main differences with Bernie Sanders in the primaries.) Given that Congress is likely to be gridlocked again next year, preserving the gains of the Obama era is one of Democrats’ key goals.

Still, there’s a reason that very few candidates position themselves as running for a third term the way Clinton is doing. Conventional wisdom among political scientists holds that after eight years of one party, Americans are usually ready for a change. And while things aren’t as bad in America as Trump’s rhetoric often implies, worries about the economy, crime, and terrorism mean it’s not exactly 1988 — when the economy was booming and the Soviet Union was falling apart — either.

At the Republican National Convention in Cleveland last week, some Republican wore buttons saying "No Third Term." The big question is whether most voters will agree with them.

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