Obama Is Setting Up Hillary Clinton to Fail

The president’s approval rating is inching up, but there’s little public enthusiasm for his liberal agenda. That puts Clinton in an uncomfortable position.

President Obama speaks as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton listens during a 2012 cabinet meeting at the White House.
National Journal
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Josh Kraushaar
Jan. 27, 2015, 3 p.m.

Pres­id­ent Obama de­livered his pen­ul­tim­ate State of the Uni­on with re­newed con­fid­ence, eager to take cred­it for the eco­nomy’s re­cent growth spurt. He offered few olive branches to Re­pub­lic­ans for their land­slide vic­tory two months earli­er; ar­tic­u­lated a panoply of lib­er­al pro­pos­als that stand little chance of passing through Con­gress; and took the rosi­est pos­sible view of the eco­nomy and in­ter­na­tion­al land­scape — even in the face of con­trary evid­ence. In the mo­ment, it’s a savvy polit­ic­al play: Claim cred­it for an im­prov­ing pub­lic mood and force Re­pub­lic­ans on the de­fens­ive.

But des­pite the hoopla, re­cent polling shows that the pub­lic is much more in sync with the GOP’s agenda than the White House’s. This month’s NBC/WSJ sur­vey il­lus­trated a strik­ing dis­con­nect between the pres­id­ent’s im­prov­ing ap­prov­al rat­ing (at 46 per­cent, up 2 points since Novem­ber) and the top pri­or­it­ies of the Amer­ic­an elect­or­ate. In the sur­vey, 85 per­cent of voters rank “cre­at­ing jobs” as a top pri­or­ity, fol­lowed by de­feat­ing and dis­mant­ling IS­IS (74 per­cent), re­du­cing the fed­er­al de­fi­cit (71 per­cent), se­cur­ing the bor­der with Mex­ico (58 per­cent), and ad­dress­ing Ir­an’s nuc­le­ar pro­gram (56 per­cent). The last four are core GOP strengths; polls con­sist­ently show Re­pub­lic­ans with an edge on those is­sues.

The items at the bot­tom of the pri­or­ity list are all top ad­min­is­tra­tion pri­or­it­ies: clos­ing the Guantanamo pris­on camp (24 per­cent rate as top pri­or­ity), ad­dress­ing the is­sue of cli­mate change (34 per­cent), cre­at­ing a path­way to cit­izen­ship for il­leg­al im­mig­rants (39 per­cent), and in­creas­ing the min­im­um wage (44 per­cent). It wasn’t just Obama’s as­sess­ment of the in­ter­na­tion­al stage that was dis­con­nec­ted from real­ity. It was also his as­sess­ment that the Amer­ic­an people are with him on his agenda.

That dis­con­nect will be driv­ing the up­com­ing pres­id­en­tial elec­tion, which will provide a de­cis­ive ver­dict on the sus­tain­ab­il­ity of Obama’s ac­com­plish­ments. Obama, as he ad-libbed in the State of the Uni­on, couldn’t help but brag that he won two elec­tions as proof of his man­date. The GOP also won a his­tor­ic num­ber of seats in Con­gress, cap­it­al­iz­ing on pub­lic an­ger over his policies. Rather than move to the middle and com­prom­ise with Re­pub­lic­ans, Obama ap­pears in­tent on play­ing to his party’s pro­gress­ive base in the run-up to the 2016 elec­tions — and pass along that leg­acy to Hil­lary Clin­ton’s nas­cent cam­paign. It’s a gamble that will de­term­ine wheth­er his land­mark le­gis­la­tion will re­main law, or be rolled back by a new Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­ent.

Obama should re­cog­nize how much of his post-elec­tion bump is be­ing driv­en by forces out­side of his con­trol. The pres­id­ent is eagerly tak­ing cred­it for the im­proved eco­nomy, even though little has passed le­gis­lat­ively in re­cent years. It wasn’t long ago that he was blam­ing GOP in­transigence for the slow growth. Now he’s bet­ting his re­main­ing polit­ic­al cap­it­al that the en­cour­aging eco­nom­ic trends will con­tin­ue in­to next year — hardly a guar­an­tee, giv­en the his­tory of false starts in the past.

“We’re go­ing to have to see sus­tained growth in the num­ber of middle-class jobs and an in­crease in me­di­an in­come be­fore we really see at­ti­tudes about the eco­nomy turn around,” said Re­pub­lic­an poll­ster Whit Ayres, who is ad­vising po­ten­tial pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate Marco Ru­bio. “De­bates on how to get the eco­nomy go­ing to get more well-pay­ing middle-class jobs will re­main one of the very top is­sues in the next pres­id­en­tial cam­paign. The depth of middle-class anxi­ety is so wide­spread.”

Obama’s own em­phas­is on “middle-class eco­nom­ics” demon­strated that, des­pite his op­tim­ism, he re­cog­nizes that many Amer­ic­ans are still strug­gling to make ends meet. But his solu­tions were oddly dis­con­nec­ted from both the eco­nom­ic and the polit­ic­al real­it­ies he faces.

Con­sider the lack of cre­ativ­ity from the ad­min­is­tra­tion in its sig­na­ture ini­ti­at­ive from the State of the Uni­on: free com­munity col­lege tu­ition for every­one. For most low-in­come Amer­ic­ans, the tu­ition is already free or heav­ily sub­sid­ized. There’s not a groundswell of middle-class house­holds whose goal is to re­ceive an as­so­ci­ate de­gree. The plan wasn’t ac­com­pan­ied by a more am­bi­tious ap­proach to, say, help com­munity col­leges teach cer­tain skills that aren’t taught at tra­di­tion­al four-year col­leges. (Ru­bio, for in­stance, has pro­posed ex­pand­ing ac­cess to ca­reer and vo­ca­tion­al edu­ca­tion as part of his de­tailed edu­ca­tion­al blue­print.)

It’s merely a tu­ition giveaway, one that ori­gin­ally was partly paid for by the very middle- and up­per-middle-class fam­il­ies that are sav­ing money for the four-year col­leges that Obama has called es­sen­tial for a suc­cess­ful ca­reer. The plan pro­posed get­ting rid of the tax ex­emp­tion on 529 col­lege sav­ings ac­counts, which have been grow­ing in pop­ular­ity, to help par­ents pre­pare for their chil­drens’ rising edu­ca­tion ex­penses. That pro­vi­sion was so polit­ic­ally tone deaf that the White House with­drew it just one week after the pres­id­ent in­tro­duced it.

The pro­pos­al smacked of the very re­dis­tributive schemes that dogged Demo­crats throughout the 1980s.

Any­time a politi­cian prom­ises to “lower the cost to zero,” as Obama did in his ad­dress, it’s worth re­mem­ber­ing the eco­nom­ic max­im “there’s no such thing as a free lunch.” And it dir­ectly puts a squeeze on the very middle-class con­stitu­ency that Obama claims to be court­ing. Hil­lary Clin­ton will cer­tainly want to echo a mes­sage centered on edu­ca­tion­al op­por­tun­ity, but she’s prob­ably not eager to ali­en­ate a siz­able group of voters who will be up for grabs in the next elec­tion.

Clin­ton has been pub­licly sup­port­ive of the pres­id­ent, but he’s boxed her in­to a corner. She can’t af­ford to pub­licly break with a pres­id­ent whose for­tunes align closely with hers. Yet she’s un­doubtedly aware that her odds of win­ning the Demo­crat­ic nom­in­a­tion are very strong, and mov­ing away from the cen­ter won’t help her in a gen­er­al elec­tion.

In­deed, even as Eliza­beth War­ren denies she’s run­ning for pres­id­ent, Team Clin­ton con­tin­ues to be anxious about wheth­er she jumps in­to the race, for­cing Clin­ton to take po­s­i­tions to the left of the polit­ic­al sweet spot. She’s fo­cused on the wrong Demo­crat. For all the hype, War­ren is un­likely to run and won’t be the Demo­crat push­ing Clin­ton to the left. It will be Obama him­self.

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