By MARSHA MERCER
He won’t be onstage Monday night, but President Barack Obama likely will dominate the first presidential debate.
Republicans have hung “third Obama term” around Hillary Clinton’s neck as if it were an albatross, but Democrats believe the prospect of a third Obama term could be just the thing to motivate unenthusiastic, undecided voters to go to the polls for Clinton.
Obama’s overall job approval rating, in the low 40s a couple of years ago, is a healthy 50 percent. Among Democrats, a whopping 89 percent approve of the way he’s handling his job, according to Gallup.
“More Americans are working. More have health insurance. Incomes are rising. Poverty is falling,” Obama said last week at a rally for Clinton in Philadelphia. Someone in the crowd shouted that gas is $2.
“And gas is $2 a gallon,” he said. “Thank you for reminding me.”
So when Donald Trump promises to wipe out everything Obama has done, starting with the Affordable Care Act, he not only threatens Obama’s legacy but he gives Clinton an opening with uncommitted voters who like the improved economy and social progress of the last eight years.
Only 2 or 3 percentage points now separate Clinton and Trump, so both campaigns want to woo the 13 percent of voters who are undecided.
Some are “better-educated people who lean Republican, who don’t like Trump and have zero use for Hillary Clinton, and they’re sort of paralyzed and frozen right now,” Republican pollster Bill McInturff told The Wall Street Journal.
Others are millennials who lean Democratic, supported Bernie Sanders in the primaries and haven’t fallen in love with Clinton. Democrats also worry that black voters, who provided the margin of victory for Obama in several swing states in 2012, could stay home.
Obama has made Clinton’s election his mission, telling the Congressional Black Caucus gala Saturday that he would take it as a “personal insult” to his legacy if blacks don’t turn out for Clinton.
First lady Michelle Obama, one of the most popular people in America, also is campaigning for Clinton – and Obama’s place in history.
“Elections aren’t just about who votes, but who doesn’t vote, and that’s especially true for young people like all of you,” Michelle Obama said last week at a campaign rally at George Mason University.
On the stump, the president charges that Trump is “unfit to serve” and “woefully unprepared to do this job.” Trump in turn calls Obama a “disaster” and “the worst president.”
If you can’t remember a president and first lady being so involved in a potential successor’s contest, it’s because it hasn’t happened in our lifetimes. Most presidents end their time on the stage on a sour note with the public or with little love for the person itching to replace them.
In 1960, when a reporter asked President Dwight Eisenhower to name a major contribution his vice president, Richard Nixon, then running for president, had made, Ike replied: “If you give me a week, I might think of one. I don’t remember.”
John F. Kennedy used Ike’s words in a TV ad -- and won that November.
In 2000, Vice President Al Gore – remember him? – kept his distance from disgraced President Bill Clinton, and it cost him.
But when the time came for President George W. Bush to endorse Sen. John McCain for president in 2008, Bush’s job approval rating had dropped to the basement -- about 30 percent. Even though Bush was still popular among conservatives, McCain chose not to ask Bush to campaign.
At this point in 2012, polls showed the race between Obama and Mitt Romney very tight with about 6 percent of voters undecided. On Election Day, though, the contest wasn’t as close. Obama won with 51 percent of the popular vote to Romney’s 47 percent.
Democrats hope a similar scenario plays out this year for Clinton.
As much as she might like to win purely on her own merits, Clinton knows “It Takes a Village.” Her uninspiring campaign style and the reluctance of key demographic groups to back her means she will need the whole Democratic village at her side to win.
Fortunately for her, Democrats still believe in Obama, and he said last week, “I really, really, really want to elect Hillary Clinton.”
©2016 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.