Obama’s Gift to Hillary Clinton

No modern-day president has left his potential successor a less scandal-plagued legacy than Barack Obama. 

President Barack Obama Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama on Sept. 12, 2012 in Washington, D.C.

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

We are due for a major presidential scandal. At least, that’s been the pattern for three of the last four administrations. By this point in 1987, President Reagan had fought through the Iran–Contra affair. By this point in 1999, President Clinton was coping with fallout from his impeachment. And by this point in 2007, President Bush was dealing with continued revelations into the torture at Abu Ghraib and the criminal investigation of a former aide, Scooter Libby (to say nothing of a failing economy and an unpopular war launched with bad intelligence in Iraq).

These events were important to their legacies and reputations, but less so for their careers. They were two-term presidents; voters weren’t a concern. That task would fall to their potential successors, who would have to navigate the controversies and convince voters that they were different. George H.W. Bush sold himself as a more active, responsible Republican who wouldn’t be guilty of Reagan’s occasional aloofness. Al Gore tried, unsuccessfully, to distance himself from Clinton’s misconduct, choosing a running mate known for his religious faith. And Sen. John McCain worked hard against the charge that he was Dubya Part Deux.

Bush won, while Gore and McCain were less lucky. In each case though, the candidates—and the parties—were burdened by the scandals of their predecessors. And for good reason. Iran–Contra involved illegal arm sales to guerrillas and authoritarian regimes; Clinton was the first president to be impeached since Andrew Johnson; and George W. Bush had authorized torture of detainees, violating longstanding American practice and facilitating a wide parade of human rights abuses. In each case, the criticism was bipartisan, with wide condemnation from across the ideological spectrum. Democrats condemned Clinton for Lewinsky; Republicans condemned Bush for torture.

Fast forward to the present. President Obama isn’t a stranger to mishaps, mistakes, and improprieties. His attorney general, Eric Holder, faced contempt of Congress over a failed “gunwalking” operation by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives; his State Department was raked over coals for the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya; his Internal Revenue Service was criticized for rejecting nonprofit applications from conservative groups; he was savaged for the initial failure of healthcare.gov, and his Secret Service has had to deal with questions of basic competence and accountability.

But unlike Iran–Contra or Clinton’s impeachment, none of these were consequential for Obama’s presidency. “Fast and Furious” ended with a whimper. An outside investigation from Fortune magazine—as well as investigations from House Republicans and the inspector general of the Justice Department—found no evidence that Holder (or the White House) was involved with the operation. Likewise, in the 2½ years since the tragedy in Benghazi, five congressional committees and the State Department’s Accountability Review Board have released reports on the attacks. The latest one, from the House Select Intelligence Committee, is an almost full exoneration of White House officials that debunks the conspiracies around the event. According to the GOP–penned report, there was no stand down of military support, no intelligence failure prior to the attacks, no false White House talking points, and no cover-up of evidence.

No one blames Obama for the Secret Service fiascos, and while the IRS business looked like a serious scandal, subsequent scrutiny turned up practically nothing. A Senate report found “no evidence of IRS political bias” in the agency’s actions, while a report from the House Oversight Committee failed to find coordination between IRS officials and political operatives in the White House. Even the most critical reports—which condemned the IRS for an alleged “inability to keep politics out of objective decisions about interpretation of the tax code”—didn’t connect agency behavior to the president. The general conclusion—condemnation aside—was that the IRS had gone too far in trying to keep political advocacy groups from claiming tax-exempt status.

Healthcare.gov could have been a catastrophe, but the administration quickly moved to repair the damage. By Christmas—less than three months after its awful debut—the site was working. By the end of the first enrollment period, it was processing new applications at a brisk pace, and as of this month, more than 9 million people have applied for insurance through healthcare.gov. The site, by any measure, is a success.

Conservatives will huff and harrumph to the contrary, but relative to his peers, Obama has had a remarkably clean, scandal-free presidency. Unlike Reagan, he hasn’t had to offer a national apology. Unlike Clinton, he hasn’t had to face a special prosecutor. And unlike George W. Bush, he hasn’t had to answer to something like the 9/11 Commission. He’s had scandals, but not the kind that bring intra-party criticism—a sure sign that the offense is serious—or force a massive public reckoning. This isn’t a matter of polarization either. When the IRS scandal broke, Democrats as well as Republicans called for investigations. As it withered, however, it became a more partisan affair.

For Democrats in the 2010 and 2014 midterm elections, this didn’t mean much. For Hillary Clinton, however, it’s a real advantage. As it stands, she’s tied to President Obama. Not only did she serve in his administration, but her personal popularity has moved in tandem with his. Her favorability is at 48.9 percent. His is at 48.5 percent.

Put simply, there’s nothing Clinton can do to escape Obama’s legacy. But she doesn’t need to. Unlike with McCain and Bush or Gore and Bill Clinton, there is no Obama scandal fatigue or general exhaustion with Democrats. Forty-six percent of Americans have a favorable view of the Democratic Party, and majorities say that Democrats are “open and tolerant, care about the middle-class, and not too extreme.” There’s also no particular anger or displeasure at Obama from the general public. His job approval has inched back into positive territory, and for the first time in five years, more Americans say his economic policies have made conditions better than worse—38 percent versus 28 percent.

Far from being a burden on Clinton’s bid, Obama is an asset. Which is why the campaign will embrace him. Not just as a conduit to black American voters, but as a good president whose policies should be continued and extended. No, this doesn’t equate to an inevitable Clinton victory, and the public may still want a change of pace after eight years of Democrats. But for Democratic partisans, it’s far preferable to the alternative world where Clinton is desperately running away from the president and his administration.

Indeed, for as much as liberals have complained about Obama’s stoicism in the face of almost everything, that same quality is poised to give Democrats a key bonus in the game: Stability. And when Republicans warn of a “third Obama term,” Clinton can flip that as a good thing.