You might think the candidates have the most invested in the 2016 presidential election, but someone else has nearly as much riding on the outcome: President Obama.
Though he will not appear on the ballot, Obama believes his legacy hangs in the balance of the election. He has implemented policy on climate change, detente with Cuba and other issues through sweeping use of his executive power, all of which could be stripped away by any future Oval Office occupant.
Thus, his legacy probably flourishes under a Democratic successor or disassembles under a Republican.
Obama has made it clear to aides that once he's done hiking and snorkeling with his family on their Hawaiian vacation, he will gear up for a hard campaign of legacy preservation, according to administration officials familiar with his plans. He'll raise money to fill Democratic coffers and target the key communities that would make up a winning coalition for the party, including blacks, Latinos, educated single women and young voters, to encourage them to go to the polls.
Political analysts say Obama could be an important weapon in the Democratic effort to hold on to the White House.
“Politics in 2016 is about motivation more than persuasion,” said Dan Pfeiffer, a longtime former political advisor to the Obama campaigns and White House. “The challenge for the Democratic nominee is to motivate a coalition of voters who have only ever turned out when President Obama was on the ballot.”
Obama's popularity with those voters remains strong, and starting with his final State of the Union address Jan. 12, Obama plans to roll out an agenda aimed at rallying them once again. For instance, he is considering taking significant executive action as soon as next week to prevent more gun sales to violent felons and others, and the White House is exploring ways to require more background checks for would-be gun buyers.
Obama also plans to tackle issues that appeal to those constituencies, such as criminal justice reform.
“The president is acutely aware that the best way to cement the gains made over the past eight years is to make sure a Democrat succeeds him,” one advisor, who was not authorized to discuss the president's plans, said on condition of anonymity. “He'll work hard to make sure that happens.”
He's planning to counter Republican candidates, for whom reversing and repealing the Obama regime is a popular pledge. They have made promises that on their first day as president, they would tear up Obama's landmark deal to limit Iran's nuclear program (Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida, and a host of others); deport the 11 million or so people in the U.S. illegally (businessman Donald Trump); roll back Obama's environmental regulations (Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky); and freeze all new regulations (New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie).
Unlike his predecessors, Obama's plans do not include hiding out in an attempt to save his party's nominee from his own baggage. When they were outgoing presidents, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush were both seen primarily as political threats to the men they endorsed to succeed them.
Front-runner Hillary Clinton and her Democratic primary rivals, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, have embraced Obama to varying degrees. In her stump speech, Clinton says she would build on Obama's gains and warns against backsliding on his healthcare reforms.
His former secretary of State, she also sides with him on gun control and even doubles down on the controversy over Obama's use of executive powers. If she can't get Congress to work with her, she vows, she will use the same tools to close corporate tax loopholes and protect many immigrants working in the U.S. without documentation.
On election day, Obama could prove to be a lifeline to the coalition of voters Democrats need to retain the White House.
Turnout among black voters, who vote overwhelmingly for Democrats, surged several points to record highs in 2008 and 2012. Latino voters helped deliver Obama's reelection, with fewer than 30% backing his rival, the lowest level for a Republican presidential nominee in several elections.
Of course, enthusiasm among Obama's key constituencies may be higher when he is actually on the ballot. In 2008, nearly 1 in 4 votes were cast by nonwhites. In the next midterm, 2010, 22.5% of the votes were cast by nonwhites, a percentage that rose again to 26% in 2012 as Obama sought reelection. Those margins, though slim, can be enough to tip a state crucial to an electoral college win in a politically polarized atmosphere.
That points to a potential problem with his strategy for 2016, when another Democrat's name will lead the ballot.
“He's an incredible performer on the biggest political stage, with the potential to be an asset with minorities and younger voters who were crucial components of a winning Democratic coalition in 2008 and 2012,” said Kevin Madden, a Republican strategist not working for any of the candidates. “The problem for Hillary Clinton is that Obama's appeal to these voters is not transferable.”
“As strong as the bond is between Obama and these voters, it will still be hard for them to get excited about Hillary Clinton,” Madden predicted.
Yet Obama's expertise in campaigning, and that of his twice-victorious team, is no small advantage. Already, Clinton has been the beneficiary of Obama's powerful digital and analytics teams, devoted to carrying out the agenda that rallied voters when he was running.
Besides the ability to draw donors to fundraisers and stay in touch with friendly voters, Obama also has the power of his office at his disposal.
Still, the inevitable outcry about power-happy Democrats highlights another peril for the Obama strategy — that his legacy-buffing could at some point conflict with the nominee's interests. Eventually, the Democratic candidate will have to court swing-state white voters with more conservative views.
The nominee will have to make his or her own case, Pfeiffer said.
“Support is not transferable,” he said. “But the president will be as valuable a weapon as any president has been in recent memory.”