Something is missing from President Obama’s list.
“Progress is on the ballot,” he said at a campaign rally here last week. “Tolerance is on the ballot. Justice is on the ballot. Equality is on the ballot. Our democracy is on the ballot!”
It's not as if Obama forgot that Hillary Clinton, the nominee he is campaigning for, is also on the ballot. It's just that the election is about so much more for the outgoing head of state.
More than for most presidents, Obama’s legacy rests in the hands of whoever follows him in office: Clinton, whose platform builds on his record, or Donald Trump, who has vowed to rescind many of Obama’s actions. Thus, Obama is stumping more aggressively for a successor than any president has in modern U.S. history, claiming an unprecedented platform to extol his years in the White House.
He has revived his considerable campaigning skills to sell both Clinton and his own record with the feel of a man on a victory lap, vindicated by his increasing popularity and what he sees as a mission to truth-squad the GOP message of the last eight years.
One of Obama’s main campaign tasks has to been to tie Republicans to their nominee, who has been reluctantly embraced by some in his party, outright shunned by others over his divisive candidacy.
Obama has appeared to relish explaining his view that Republicans helped give Trump his opening by their consistent opposition to the president and sitting on the sidelines while Trump amplified the lie about where Obama was born.
Obama mocked Florida Sen. Marco Rubio's contortions this year, when Rubio went from a GOP primary opponent who tried to bait Trump by making implications about the size of his genitals to a supporter of Trump once he secured the party’s presidential nomination.
“Republican politicians and far-right media outlets had just been pumping out all kinds of toxic, crazy stuff,” Obama said last week in Miami, barely keeping his voice from cracking into laughter. “And there were a lot of politicians, like Marco Rubio, who know better, but they just looked the other way.”
Trump, he said, “didn’t come out of nowhere.”
He wailed with similarly obvious glee against Rep. Joe Heck of Nevada, a Republican running for Senate, saying in North Las Vegas on Sunday that now that Trump’s poll numbers have "cratered,” Heck is distancing himself.
“Too late!” Obama said. “You don't get credit for that.”
Obama, largely sidelined in the 2014 elections by wary Democrats, is starting to exhibit some of the spark of his historic 2008 campaign. Aides say he frequently asks for data from the field and talks about races down the ballot.
He recorded TV or radio ads for three Democrats running for governor, eight for Senate and 10 for the House. He attended 21 fundraisers for Democratic congressional and governors committees and five for individual candidates. He weighed in on behalf of 150 Democrats running for state legislatures.
"Obama's vigorous campaigning for Hillary Clinton is a new dimension of the modern presidency,” said Robert Schmuhl, professor of American studies and journalism at the University of Notre Dame. "What Obama is doing this fall makes him stand out from his predecessors in a vivid and distinctive way. He's using his approval ratings and campaign skills to create what he hopes will be a new kind of coattails."
This week alone, Obama is campaigning at least four days. After the stop in Las Vegas, he headed to California to raise funds Monday outside San Diego and Tuesday in Los Angeles, and he will rally for Clinton on Friday in Orlando, Fla.
And he resurrected an old character from his 2008 stump speech: Cousin Pookie, the lazy fictional relative who hasn’t gotten off the couch to vote in several elections.
“Don’t boo. Vote!” he told the crowd in Miami. “And get your friends to vote! Get Uncle Joe to vote! Get Pookie to vote! And Javier to vote!” — the last part a twist added for 2016, in which Latino voters, expected to make up 12% of the electorate, are more crucial to Democratic turnout than ever.
The energetic schedule isn’t without its drawbacks. Republicans question the time the president is devoting to raising money for and pitching his candidate. They have used his involvement in the race as a lever for fundraising; Rubio fired off an email seeking donations while Obama was still in Miami.
And Trump has begun to complain during his campaign appearances that he is looking around for the commander in chief.
"I'd like to see him in the White House working instead of campaigning for 'Crooked Hillary,'" Trump said at a rally Monday in St Augustine, Fla.
Obama welds policy into his time on the trail, as when he prefaced the rally here with an hourlong discourse on healthcare policy at Miami Dade College.
Where there are imperfections, Obama blames Republicans. They didn’t want healthcare reform, wouldn’t engage with him on it, he explained to students. A total of 19 GOP governors have refused to cooperate with an expansion of Medicaid that the White House says would cover 4 million people.
Anthony Ordoñez, a Miami Dade College sophomore voting in his first election, has reservations about Obama’s use of drone strikes in the Middle East. But he thinks history will smile on Obama’s record on domestic policy.
“He’s right. Obamacare did help a lot of people,” said Ordoñez, an honors student studying mechanical and aerospace engineering. “As I look back on what he has done, the record speaks for itself. He has done a good job.”
Obama’s legacy — on healthcare, climate and other progressive priorities — is at the heart of Democrats’ case.
“I ran,” Clinton said in Seattle recently, “because I really believe that we need to build on the progress that we have made under President Obama.”
At a fundraising brunch in La Jolla on Monday, Obama emphasized the importance of a big Clinton win to preserve and advance the gains of his administration. He challenged the GOP's latest argument, which acknowledges a possible Trump loss, that people should vote Republican as “a check” against a Clinton presidency.
"Let me just translate that for you," Obama said, labeling it as simply code for more of the obstructionism Republicans erected against his agenda.
“They're counting on people thinking that gridlock is the best we can do, because that plays to their basic philosophy" that government has no role in helping people, he said. “They're OK with gridlock. But you know what? We can do so much better than that."
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