Obama tries to hold spotlight as 2016 race crowds the stage

Obama tries to hold spotlight as 2016 race crowds the stage
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With his name no longer on the ballot, President Obama is seeking to remain relevant as Washington’s attention shifts to the 2016 presidential race.

For Saturday at least, Obama will command the spotlight as he takes the stage at the White House Correspondents' dinner to crack wise with reporters and perhaps make a joke or two about the field of candidates jockeying to replace him. 

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But keeping hold of the agenda is no laughing matter for the White House, which is making a concerted effort to keep the president driving the political and policy conversation until the day he leaves office.

That could prove to be a tough task. Sens. Marco Rubio (Fla.), Rand Paul (Ky.), and Ted Cruz (Texas) have officially launched their Republican presidential bids. Several others, including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, are out on the campaign trail as unofficial candidates, giving them a bigger media megaphone with which to criticize Obama.

And every utterance and movement of Hillary Clinton, the undisputed front-runner for the Democratic nomination, is being closely followed by a pack of national reporters.

Even the White House press corps has caught the 2016 bug.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest’s daily briefings increasingly touch on the race, with questions about foreign donations to Clinton charitable foundation, the absence of a top-flight Democratic challenger, and Ted Cruz’s health insurance. 

“He’s still the president and we still have a little less than two years left in his second term, but the political world is moving beyond him,” said Ken Mayer, a University of Wisconsin-Madison political science professor who studies the presidency.

“It’s not like there is a lever you could pull or a button you could push to stay relevant. If there was, everybody would do that.” 

The 2016 campaign is pushing Obama into a new phase of his presidency, where his agenda and the desire to elect a Democratic successor could sometimes come in conflict.

But for now, White House officials say they are confident that Obama is maximizing the power of his bully pulpit, noting that he is pushing new trade deals, negotiating a nuclear pact with Iran and normalizing relations with Cuba.

“We’re in a position in the political debate where everyone is responding to us,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest told The Hill in an interview. “So much of what you hear emanating from Republicans is not about advancing their own agenda, but them commenting on, criticizing, or trying to block ours.”

But with the media’s focus drifting toward the campaign, the White House has had to get creative to draw attention to the president’s domestic agenda items, such as climate change, equal pay, and criminal-justice reform. 

Obama taped a White House video about global warming with Bill Nye the Science Guy. He took questions from female-centric websites SheKnows.com and BlogHer.com during a North Carolina town hall on equal pay. And he talked drug-sentencing reform with David Simon, creator of HBO’s “The Wire.”

To work around the Republican Congress, the president has stepped up the use of smaller-scale executive actions on everything from paid leave for federal workers to land conservation. 

The goal is to accomplish as much as possible before Obama leaves office, even if it attracts less attention than before.

Last month, the president commuted the sentences of 22 people convicted of drug crimes in an effort to correct what criminal-justice reformers believe are harsh sentences for non-violent offenders. 

"The goal here is to advance the agenda," Earnest said. “Particularly in this stage of the presidency, there is no upside to putting things off until later." 

Like presidents before him, Obama is facing the delicate second-term task of trying to help his party hold the White House while pursuing proposals that sometimes cause heartburn for the eventual nominee.

While Clinton has aligned herself with Obama on many issues, she is facing increasing questions about whether she supports trade promotion authority legislation, an Obama priority that is vehemently opposed by the left.

She also will have to grapple with Obama’s nuclear negotiations with Iran — a legacy item for Obama that could complicate her efforts to appeal to pro-Israel Democrats distrustful of the diplomatic push.

The White House says it communicates with Clinton’s staff, but insists there is no coordination between Obama and Clinton on her campaign, despite an unannounced Clinton visit to the White House in March.

“They will set the course they believe is most useful to their campaign,” Earnest said. “They’ve got plenty of people offering advice, so I’m not going to do that.”

“Part of my job is to make the case for the president’s priorities and the president’s record and I won’t hesitate to do that,” Earnest said. “But I think over the course of the race it will be very clear that the kinds of values Secretary Clinton has articulated on the campaign trail are very consistent with the kinds of values the president has championed.”