Columns » Jay Barth

The surrogate-in-chief

Almost unnoticed in the hubbub of presidential nomination politics is the fact that the president we have is popular again.


  • Gage Skidmore via Wikimedia Commons

Almost unnoticed in the hubbub of presidential nomination politics is the fact that the president we have is popular again. According to the daily tracker of presidential job approval ratings published by Gallup, President Obama's public approval is now up to 53 percent, the highest level since the first weeks of his second term. Whether it is the continued positive economic news (including extraordinarily low unemployment rates and gasoline prices), historic foreign policy initiatives such as last week's trip to Cuba, or a preliminary nostalgia for a president marked by "an ethos of integrity, humanity, good manners and elegance" (as David Brooks put it in a recent column titled "I Miss Barack Obama") in the midst of a presidential campaign marked by a deeply inelegant Republican frontrunner, many Americans who had turned themselves off to the president have turned back on to him in large enough numbers to move him into positive approval territory.

This rebound in presidential popularity is important for two reasons. First, we know that the job approval numbers of the incumbent president are one of the most important variables in explaining the outcome of any presidential election. Political scientist Alan Abramowitz shows that over half of the percentage of the vote gained in open-seat elections is explained by the approval rating of the president leaving office. While Obama's approval numbers are not high enough to be a major advantage for a Democratic candidate seeking to succeed him, they are certainly no longer a drag on that candidate.

More important than this statistical reality is the fact that Obama — a proven vote-getter still very much in his prime — has communication skills allowing him to serve as a potent surrogate for a Democratic general election candidate, especially one campaigning on extending his basic governing philosophy — like his former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Indeed, we probably have to go back to 1908 to find a popular president in a position to move voters on behalf of the fellow partisan seeking to replace him. An extremely popular Theodore Roosevelt — living up to his promise to not seek a full third term — actively campaigned for his decidedly less politically adept Secretary of War William Howard Taft. Roosevelt's engagement in the Taft campaign became so prominent that critics raised questions about it, saying that TAFT stood for "Take Advice From Theodore."

In the century that has followed, it has been rare that a president has been in any position to campaign for their successor. While President Ronald Reagan was popular enough to still draw large crowds on George H.W. Bush's behalf, the Iran-Contra scandal had nicked the Teflon and Reagan was generally losing energy by 1988. Famously, in 2000, Al Gore sidelined the emphatically talented Bill Clinton — with high job-approval ratings, but agonizingly low personal approval rating numbers. When Clinton finally was allowed only to campaign in his home state in the final weeks of the general election, his efforts helped Mike Ross win a congressional seat, but were too late to help his veep gain the handful of Electoral College votes he needed for victory.

In contrast, Barack Obama seems only to be improving and becoming more multidimensional as a communicator as he moves toward retirement. For years, Obama was the master of the "big speech," but weaker — indeed somewhat boring — with smaller scale statements. Now, he shows an ability to mix warm emotions and snarky edginess in different venues. The president provided a great example of this skill last week in his reaction to the proposal by Republican presidential contender Sen. Ted Cruz that neighborhoods with large Muslim-American populations should be patrolled. "I just left a country that engages in that kind of neighborhood surveillance, which, by the way, the father of Senator Cruz escaped for America, the land of the free," Obama said in a pithy, personal-but-not-mean-spirited fileting of the proposal.

Make no mistake, there are many parts of America where Obama will not be welcomed with open arms. However, there will be no better surrogate for Clinton in the cities and suburbs of the swing states of Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida, and Wisconsin than this guy who is very much in sync with his times and whose style of governing will likely look even more uplifting by November.


Add a comment