- - Sunday, June 5, 2016

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Even in a two-person presidential race, a third person is always present: the incumbent president. That’s true with a vengeance this year. Barack Obama is the not-so-silent partner of Hillary Clinton in the Democrats’ drive to retain the White House.

Her prospects will rise and fall with Mr. Obama’s popularity whether she wants the connection or not. Right now, she wants the connection.

The president’s job approval rating is higher than his disapproval rating, which is new, just a couple months old. His approval on average is roughly 50 percent, which is as high as it’s been for a long time on RealClearPolitics. In other words, President Obama isn’t a drag on the Clinton candidacy and that’s a tangible benefit for her.

Put another way, Mr. Obama is less disliked than either Donald Trump or Mrs. Clinton, so, in a tight race, he may be able to inch her over the finish line first. It’s no coincidence then that Mr. Obama has been speaking out more often to criticize Mr. Trump. His words are less likely to backfire as long as roughly half the country likes him.

Mr. Trump has been dismissing the president’s assertions that he (Trump) has been cavalier or ignorant. But the fact is that those comments help the Democrat. Secretary Clinton’s top surrogate, in other words, isn’t President Clinton but is another president named Obama, at least for now.

Mr. Trump clearly needs to wage a two-front war for the White House. He has to discredit Mrs. Clinton, of course. But he also has to drag down President Obama if he can. Unfortunately for all of us, he might get some help from the U.S. economy. Experts are predicting a slowdown or at least a stock market correction soon. In addition, the Federal Reserve Board could raise interest rates next month for the first time in years. That’s likely to slow the economy (at least a little) by Election Day.

Moody’s, which keeps close watch on the nation’s economy, has a statistical model that uses economic data to predict president elections. The model’s been correct in each presidential election since 1980. This year, the model foresees an easy win for the Democrat because of buoyant economic news lately. If the economy stumbles, though, so could Mrs. Clinton’s presidential hopes.

Reversals in foreign events could also bring President Obama down in the polls. So could a problem with Obamacare, the president’s chief legacy item. Another possibility is that the president’s heavy-handed reliance on regulation to institute his agenda could begin to grate on Americans. The transgender bathroom issue has already gotten independents wondering what’s going on in Washington. Can’t the president leave anything alone — even in the restroom?

And, of course, the FBI has yet to be heard from on the long-simmering email scandal. If it or the U.S. Justice Department echoes the harsh criticisms of Mrs. Clinton by the State Department Inspector General, then the whole race could turn.

But Mr. Trump can’t wait for events to intervene. It’s no stretch to predict that Mr. Trump will step up his needling the president along with Mrs. Clinton in his stump speeches. He certainly didn’t hold back prior to his recent energy-policy speech. He called Mr. Obama names. And the name calling will no doubt increase.

For her part, Secretary Clinton will continue to tie herself closely to Mr. Obama. The strategy has a clear upside at the moment, but could go the other way if his approval ratings sink again to levels that have been lower and more normal during his presidency. She gambles, therefore, by running as a Democrat in the Obama mold.

Now, she wins among African American voters by doing so almost no matter what happens to Mr. Obama’s popularity. But she could fall with Mr. Obama’s popularity if voters remember her allegiance during this critical period.

Mr. Obama is central to the Clinton campaign.

Jeffrey H. Birnbaum is president of BGR Public Relations.

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