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Hillary Clinton deploys her not-so-secret weapon: Barack Obama

Barack Obama gave Hillary Clinton a lift on Air Force One on Tuesday to a campaign event in North Carolina.
Barack Obama gave Hillary Clinton a lift on Air Force One on Tuesday to a campaign event in North Carolina.

The headlines about Hillary Clinton began on Tuesday with FBI Director James Comey ripping her use of a private email server while secretary of state as "extremely careless."

But a few hours later, Clinton was whisked aboard Air Force One for a flight with President Barack Obama to North Carolina. By around 3:30 pm, she was basking in Obama’s praise as the two hit the campaign trail together for the first time in 2016.

"I believe in Hillary Clinton," Obama said before a crowd of thousands at the Charlotte Convention Center. "The bottom line is she was a great secretary of state."

Naturally, nobody there mentioned her emails.

Clinton holds a decent polling lead and a formidable fundraising edge against Donald Trump, but she still faces some major obstacles: She is widely viewed as untrustworthy by most of the American electorate, and condemnations from the FBI aren’t likely to help.

Obama won’t solve those problems overnight. But he’s still one of the most popular politicians in America, particularly among some of the demographics Clinton needs badly in November. The Clinton campaign has said they view Obama as the best possible advocate for Clinton — someone who can both rally the party behind her and highlight her undervalued strengths. Starting today, we’ll get to see if that optimism is well-founded.

Obama is pretty popular, and Trump is not

As the Democratic primary began to reach its end stage a few weeks ago, Obama told a group of donors that he was itching to get to out on the stump and hammer Trump.

The New York Times reported:

Advisers say the president, who sees a Democratic successor as critical to his legacy, is impatient to begin campaigning. They say he is taking nothing for granted.

"I want us to run scared the whole time," Mr. Obama told a group of donors on Friday night in Miami.

It’s not hard to see why. Trump’s political ascent began by questioning whether Obama was really born in America, and Obama has barely masked his contempt for Trump since the "birther" conspiracy theorist exploded onto the national stage.

For now, at least, most Americans appear to side with Obama. The president’s approval ratings rose steadily throughout the course of the primary, and he’s significantly more popular than Trump:

(HuffPost Pollster)

Obama’s rising popularity is partly explained by the ugliness of the primary; reentering the arena will probably drag his numbers back down a bit, says Matthew Dickinson, a political scientist at Middlebury College.

But even in a hyperpolarized environment, Obama’s popularity can’t solely be explained by the fact that he’s on his way out. He may be liked by just over 50 percent of the country, but that’s enough to make him far more broadly popular than Clinton or Trump.

Political scientist: Obama’s main task is to get young Democrats excited for Clinton

Obama is indeed better-liked than Trump in the broader electorate, but the president’s greatest value to Clinton is probably not in convincing undecided voters to swing her way.

Instead, Obama’s key job is more likely to be to gin up support for Clinton among those who are already predisposed to vote for her — particularly Bernie Sanders die-hards and young minority voters.

"He’s going to have to mobilize Democrats and Democratic-leaning voters, particularly those [that] Clinton needs," Dickinson says. "The added benefit from Obama is really mobilization much more than persuasion."

When you ask young people if they had to pick between Trump and Clinton, they overwhelmingly choose Clinton. Trump is toxic to millennials — by a spread of around 40 points, they say they’d pick Clinton over him if those are their options.

But it’s going to be critical for Clinton to ensure that polling gap translates into a voting gap on Election Day. Young people won’t vote for Trump, but some may stay home or vote for Green Party candidate Jill Stein if they remain sour on Clinton. (There may be a direct parallel in Britain’s Brexit referendum, where young voters overwhelmingly favored the UK remaining in the European Union but didn’t show up in big numbers on Election Day.)

This is where Obama might make the biggest difference. More than 80 percent of Sanders supporters, and about 64 percent of young people overall, approve of Obama’s job performance. So, at least superficially, he looks well-positioned to make a difference:

Many young voters just spent months fighting Hillary Clinton. Barack Obama can relate.

A big part of Obama’s speech on Tuesday was that he had once fought bitterly against Clinton but has eventually came to see how effective she is in office through her tenure as secretary of state.

The obvious subtext here is that some people don’t like Clinton, and Obama can relate to that because he also ran against Clinton. This is a somewhat awkward thing to suggest during a campaign event ostensibly devoted to celebrating Clinton.

But it’s also got some real truth to it, and that might make it a particularly powerful message for Obama to deliver to Clinton skeptics.

Clinton and Obama really did have a bitter primary — one some see as being much more bitter than the one between Clinton and Sanders.

Eventually, Obama noted, Clinton's esteem rose in his eyes. Now the two are not very far off on the vast majority of policy questions. Clinton served as Obama’s secretary of state and, by most accounts, really did work well with him. She wrapped herself in Obama’s policies and politics throughout the primary.

Obama may need to defeat Trump to ensure that a huge chunk of his legacy isn’t erased by the next administration. But all the evidence suggests that he’s also genuinely invested in a positive case for Clinton’s candidacy too — something that’s likely to help them both in November.

Obama is one of our most consequential presidents