Clinton’s Most Important Weapon in Her Battle Against Trump
Policy + Politics

Clinton’s Most Important Weapon in Her Battle Against Trump

REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

These have become the dog days of Hillary Clinton’s Democratic presidential campaign.

Although she is tantalizingly close to wrapping up her drive for the Democratic nomination, rival Sen. Bernie Sanders continues to keep her off stride with late-inning primary victories, as he did recently in Indiana and West Virginia and is threating to do again on Tuesday in Kentucky and Oregon.

Related: While Clinton Sets Her Sight on Trump, Sanders Pulls Her Back

More troubling, though, are her glaring deficiencies as a candidate to take on presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump this fall – flaws and shortcomings that even some of her staunchest supporters are beginning to complain about openly.

In a searing assessment of the former secretary of state’s prospects as her party’s standard bearer, The Washington Post on Sunday quoted more than a dozen Clinton allies concerned that she has stumbled badly in adapting to the anti-establishment mood sweeping the country.

While Trump may begin the general election campaign with some of the highest negative numbers of any candidate in modern times, Clinton is not far behind. The Democratic frontrunner has yet to find a way to bring luster and excitement to her campaign style, in contrast to Trump’s ability to electrify his supporters. She suffers dismal showings among young people and white men, and seems cold or distant to many.

Peter Hart, the veteran Democratic pollster who has documented many of Clinton’s political woes, told The Washington Post that it’s all about Clinton’s public image, noting that her likeability rating is lower today than it was when she first entered the race last summer.

It is far too soon for her to push the panic button, but Clinton’s national and regional polling numbers against Trump – including in the battle ground states of Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio – are not particularly impressive. And Trump has wasted little time in exploiting her weaknesses as a candidate -- denouncing her as “crooked Hillary,” questioning her judgement in foreign policy and characterizing the former first lady as an “enabler” during former President Bill Clinton’s White House sex scandal.

Related: 18 Possible Picks for Hillary’s Vice President

Trump said in an interview with The New York Times on Sunday that he intends to bring up Bill Clinton’s infidelities and Hillary Clinton’s effort to discredit Monica Lewinsky and other women involved during the nationally televised presidential debates this fall. However, he noted that women don’t like seeing Clinton bullied or insulted by men, so he will have to be more “strategic” in attacking her.

“Just getting nasty with Hillary won’t work,” Trump told the newspaper. “You really have to get people to look hard at her character, and to get women to ask themselves if Hillary is truly sincere and authentic.”

While Clinton must find effective ways counter Trump’s more vicious political and personal attacks without getting down in the mud with him, she will be counting heavily on prominent campaign surrogates and a strong vice presidential running mate to help carry the fight to Trump and the Republicans.

And no one will be more important to her prospects for pulling out a victory than President Obama, who has become Clinton’s closest and most important ally in the 2016 campaign.

Although the president and his former secretary of state have had their differences of opinion, especially on aspects of Obama’s foreign policy in Syria and Iraq, Clinton has embraced closely most of the president’s domestic agenda, particularly the embattled Affordable Care Act and his economic and climate-change policies.

Related: Mark Cuban to Hillary Clinton: You Need Someone Like Me as Your VP

Clinton’s strategy of swearing allegiance to Obama’s legacy has paid handsome dividends for her against Sanders, as she has captured huge majorities of African-Americans, Latinos and older Americans throughout the South, Midwest and Northeast.

Clinton and Obama essentially have a symbiotic relationship: Clinton continues to need the president’s support to finally finish off Sanders and fully pivot to Trump and the general election while Obama needs Clinton in the White House beginning next January to preserve his legacy. As his own approval rating has begun to climb again from the mid-40s to above 50 percent, there is a lot that Obama can do to energize the Democratic Party and help Clinton counteract Trump’s often venomous attacks, according to some political experts.

“President Obama I think remains enormously popular within the Democratic Party and his legacy depends on her election as the next president of the United States,” said William Galston, a political expert at Brookings and former domestic policy adviser to former President Bill Clinton.

It’s been clear for months that Obama has been eager to enter the fray against Trump, although he has been obliged to hang back while Clinton and Sanders continue to slug it out in the Democratic primary contest. The president recently used the annual White House correspondents’ dinner and several press conferences to signal his displeasure with Trump’s reality-TV-show brand of campaigning.

On Sunday, Clinton used a commencement address at Rutgers University to offer a scathing critique of Trump’s anti-establishment, anti-immigrant, isolationist “America First” campaign, without mentioning the billionaire businessman by name.

Related: Sanders’ Attacks Are Taking a Serious Toll on Clinton

The president touched on a number of themes that are likely to be the bedrock of his fall assault on the Republican nominee. He suggested that Trump is out of touch with reality in opposing globalization and international trade cooperation; that Trump’s calls for building a wall along the border with Mexico, deporting 11 million illegal immigrants and banning most Muslims from entering this country were dangerous and un-American; and that Trump’s studied ignorance about global warming and scores of other issues endangers the nation’s security and hurts the U.S. reputation abroad.

“It’s not cool to not know what you are talking about,” the president said during his 45-minute speech in New Jersey. “That’s not keeping it real or telling it like it is. That’s not challenging political correctness. That’s just not knowing what you are talking about.”

Obama has no love for Trump, a “birther” who at one time led an effort to dispute the president’s U.S. citizenship. Having waged and won two successive presidential campaigns by energizing minorities and young people, Obama could provide key support to Clinton this fall as she battles Trump.

 “One of the best indicators of the outcome of a presidential election is the job approval rating of the incumbent,” Larry J. Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist, said Monday.  “Obama is back over 50 [percent], barely. So while he continues to rile Republicans, Obama is now an overall plus for Clinton. He can energize Democrats a lot better than she can.”

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Sabato added in an email that Obama's approval doesn't guarantee Clinton anything. But he noted that low presidential approval like that of then-Republican President George W. Bush in 2008 seriously hurt GOP presidential nominee John McCain in his battle with Obama. “Bush went into the 20s [in approval rating] and McCain never had a chance,” Sabato said.

Norman Ornstein, a political scholar with the American Enterprise Institute, agreed that Obama may prove to be Clinton’s most important weapon this fall against Trump. “A president in his final days has two weapons at his disposal: executive power and that bully pulpit, and that bully pulpit is going to be a big, big deal for him,” Ornstein told MSNBC today.