Popular Obama to Sit Out General Election’s Early Innings

Vacation, Asia trip send most popular Democrat to the bullpen

President Barack Obama and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton campaign together in Charlotte. (Photo credit Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)
President Barack Obama and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton campaign together in Charlotte. (Photo credit Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)
Posted August 3, 2016 at 5:00am

President Barack Obama will spend much of August vacationing on Martha’s Vineyard, meaning the most popular Democratic politician in the country will essentially sit out the general election’s early battles.  

Instead, like a closing pitcher in baseball, he could play a deciding role in the late stages of the game, influencing who wins the White House, Senate, and even selected local races.  

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and running mate Sen. Tim Kaine will spend August barnstorming the country while focusing on a handful of key swing states. But as they speak in convention centers and churches, Obama and his suddenly potent approval ratings will be golfing and relaxing on the exclusive Massachusetts resort.  

Though he’s been blamed for contributing to the dysfunction in Washington,  Obama’s approval ratings are hovering around 50 percent, buoyed by a recovering economy and a deliberative governing style that provides a sharp contrast to the bombastic modus operandi of GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump.  

In fact, 53 percent of Americans approve of the job Obama is doing , according to Gallup. Its poll recorded the highest approval level among several prominent polls, with a RealClearPolitics average of eight surveys placing the president’s approval at exactly 50 percent.  

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That stands in stark contrast to Clinton, the Democratic nominee he wants to see elected to solidify his own legacy and whom he called in his Democratic National Convention speech, the most qualified candidate for the White House in American history. Though the former secretary of state leads Trump in most polls, just 34 percent of voters view her as trustworthy, according to the latest CNN/ORC poll .  

Another recent Democratic second-term president, Bill Clinton, had approval ratings at or near 60 percent during his final year in office . But due to concerns of the party’s 2000 nominee, Vice President Al Gore, about Clinton’s scandal involving intern Monica Lewinsky, Clinton was not extensively used on the campaign trail in that election.  

George W. Bush, a two-term GOP president, also did not hit the campaign trail much for Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the 2008 Republican nominee. The main reason: the 43rd president’s approval ratings in his final year fluctuated at or below 30 percent .  

Obama has been picking up the pace of fundraisers for Democratic candidates, but he has yet to hit the campaign trail aggressively.  

Fundraiser_in_Chief_Top_Cost_Per_Ticket_chartbuilder Obama’s aides often use terms like “very enthusiastic” and “eager” to describe his feelings about hitting the campaign trail to make the case for Clinton and Democratic candidates down the ballot. They are quick to point out, as a White House official did last week, that as the general election begins in earnest, Obama is “as strong as any president in the last 50 years.”  

“The president has the ability to do a lot of work … at the convention and after,” a White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told a small group of reporters.  

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“The president’s political strength right now is across the board,” the official said, adding that his standing is “strong” with independents in key battleground states.  

What’s more, his aides often describe a busy campaign schedule that will focus on national and state candidates.  

“As you think about his political engagement through Nov. 8, you will see a president campaigning all the way down to state representatives,” the White House official said. “You will see an aggressive strategy not just focused on the White House [race].”  

But when Air Force One lifts off Saturday for Martha’s Vineyard, Democratic candidates will have to make their own case until Obama returns later this month. They might have to wait even longer since he is slated to head to Asia in early September.  

“He still has to be president of the United States,” the White House official said.  

Obama would be available during his family’s vacation should Clinton hit a major rough patch, but he isn’t scheduled to make his pitch to voters.  

Vanderbilt University political science professor Marc Hetherington sees Obama playing the role of a closer in baseball.  

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“Closers don’t pitch the whole game. They often pitch for an inning, or in a big moment, they might get six outs,” Hetherington said. “He came in and closed during the convention in terms of uniting the party. And he is well positioned to do the same thing during the general election.”  

During the 2008 and 2012 election cycles, Hetherington said he was struck that Obama “had less of a 24-hour-news-cycle approach — he would surge, then fade, then surge again.” He sees the same approach in Obama’s late-summer schedule: “I think this moment fits that approach very well” because “the president will have a chance to move the needle again two or four or even six weeks from now.”  

Contact Bennett at johnbennett@cqrollcall.com. Follow on Twitter @BennettJohnT
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