President Obama is using his bully pulpit to shape the 2016 presidential race, seeking to influence the vote to succeed him as the spotlight on his presidency fades.
In a trip to Springfield, Ill. — where his own presidential campaign began — Obama called for a more civil discourse in comments that appeared to be directed at lawmakers on Capitol Hill and candidates in the presidential field.
And on the heels of a positive jobs report, Obama did some economic cheerleading during a surprise appearance in the White House press briefing room as he sought to highlight a record be believes should be a political strength for his party.
The unsubtle moves are all designed to help create the conditions necessary for a Democrat to succeed Obama in what may be a difficult climate.
It is rare for the same party to win three consecutive presidential elections, and the Wall Street swoon this year has exacerbated fears about a global slowdown that could make it much harder for a Democrat to win the White House.
For Obama, keeping the White House in Democratic hands is a point of pride, and he has also signaled that he does not want to just take shots from Republicans lying down.
The president laid bare his distaste for the rhetoric coming from GOP White House hopefuls at this month’s National Prayer Breakfast. Without naming them, he said the their divisive language is playing into the nation’s fears.
“Fear can lead us to lash out against those who are different, or lead us to try to get some sinister ‘other’ under control,” Obama said. “Alternatively, fear can lead us to succumb to despair, or paralysis, or cynicism … For me, and I know for so many of you, faith is the great cure for fear.”
Obama has routinely ripped the Republican claims the economy is in poor shape. He took aim at the field’s “doom and despair” after January’s jobs report showed the unemployment rate dipping below five percent for the first time of his presidency.”
Obama isn’t giving explicit campaign speeches and White House aides insist he won’t be making an endorsement in the contentious Democratic primary between Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonPerez and Ellison agree on DNC playing neutral role in primary John Legend not ruling out talking politics at Oscars Clinton taunts GOP lawmakers for dodging town halls MORE and Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersPerez and Ellison agree on DNC playing neutral role in primary Sanders, not Trump, is the real working-class hero Big Pharma must address high drug prices MORE (I-Vt.), where he has emerged as a major character.
The president remains very popular with Democratic voters, and both Clinton and Sanders are embracing his record as they seek votes — particularly from African-Americans. Nearly nine in ten Democrats approve of his job performance, according to Gallup.
Whether that shifts in the general election is somewhat unclear.
Gallup shows Obama’s approval rating under 50 percent. It stood at 47 percent on Friday.
“On Election Day, he needs an approval rating in the high 40s, hopefully it’s in positive territory,” said Democratic strategist Doug Thornell, who is neutral in the presidential race.
Obama does have strong ratings from key constituencies, including blacks, young people and Hispanics, who give him a 60 percent approval rating.
“He’s still our best spokesperson and he is going to be relied upon on by whoever the nominee is to help turn out voters who were key to his election and reelection,” Thornell added.
There are concerning signs for the White House coming from the campaign trail.
Trump’s landslide victory in Hampshire was a stinging rebuke to Obama’s message. Two out of three Republican voters said in exit polls they support the billionaire businessman’s plan to ban Muslim immigration to the United States.
“It’s an illustration of why it’s important for the president to be engaged in the debate,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest told The Hill.
“The megaphone that’s used by the other side is a big one and it’s getting a lot of attention,” he added. “And it’s all the more reason that somebody with as much influence and attention as the president of the United States needs to be engaged in the debate.”
Earnest said Obama would continue the strategy until the party chooses a nominee, continuing to “choose his spots” to try to break through the noise of the presidential campaign, which is no easy task.
During his lame-duck year in office, Obama has increasingly fallen off the front pages of newspapers and the cable airwaves.
But Jim Manley, a former top aide to Sen. Harry ReidHarry ReidHopes rise for law to expand access to experimental drugs If Gorsuch pick leads to 'crisis,' Dems should look in mirror first Senate confirms Mulvaney to be Trump’s budget chief MORE (D-Nev.), says the president still has a "powerful bully pulpit."
“The news cycle is dominated by 2016 coverage but he can still play a significant role in shaping the tone and tenor of the debate if only because both parties keep invoking his name for different reasons," he said.
Obama must tread carefully, particularly in the Clinton-Sanders battle. He set off a media firestorm last month after he gave an interview to Politico that appeared to tip the scales in favor of Clinton.
Obama’s involvement in the 2016 race could also pose risks in the general election by fueling Republican arguments that Clinton and Sanders are simply running for a third Obama term.
“Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton are eager to put President Obama’s failed agenda on steroids,” Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said in a statement Thursday.
“Instead of putting forth a new direction for the country that would restore prosperity and confront radical Islamic terror, the Democrat primary has devolved into a race to the extreme left.”