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How an unbound Obama will help Hillary Clinton’s campaign

Hillary Clinton (REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque)

This is the era of Obama Unbound: The supposedly lame-duck president, with no more elections to run and little hope that much of substance can be accomplished through legislation, will say what he wants and do what he wants.

And it may turn out that this liberated Obama is exactly the one Hillary Clinton needs.

It’s against the law for there to be any official, explicit coordination of strategy and tactics between the White House and Clinton’s presidential campaign. But we’re probably going to see quite a bit of informal coordination, as the administration does things that just happen to benefit Clinton, and Clinton picks up cues from the administration.

For instance, Juliet Eilperin reports today that Secretary of Labor Tom Perez and White House adviser Valerie Jarrett are embarking on a tour called “Lead on Leave,” in which they’ll travel around the country holding events to promote laws at the local, state, and eventually federal level mandating that workers get paid leave for illnesses and family needs. Meanwhile, an Iowa politics blog reports that he got a call from a polling firm testing messages on family leave, and it sounded an awful lot like it came from somebody trying to get Hillary Clinton elected.

Paid sick leave is one of those policies (like increasing the minimum wage) that Republicans oppose but that are absurdly popular. For instance, in this HuffPo/YouGov poll from 2013, 84 percent of Democrats, 69 percent of Republicans, and 68 percent of Independents supported requiring companies to offer it. Yet while it’s possible that a Republican or two in the presidential race might surprise us and support it, that’s not too likely. They just aren’t inclined to support any regulation that requires employers to offer a benefit to employees, even if we’re the only country in the developed world that doesn’t have mandatory paid sick leave. And now that it’s something Barack Obama is pushing, the odds that a Republican could say he agrees with it are quickly plummeting toward zero.

If the Obama administration could roll the clock back, it might have started this initiative on paid leave five years ago. But as they look toward January 2017, administration officials are asking whether they can do anything now about all the things they wanted to do but never got around to doing. Obama himself has obviously been energized by his lame-duck status, and even in a strange way by Republican control of Congress. He no longer thinks that he’ll be able to pass much of anything legislatively, so the prospect of Republican opposition is nothing to be feared. So: Take executive actions on immigration? Absolutely. Normalize relations with Cuba? About damn time. Order the federal government to cut greenhouse gas emissions? You bet. Expand family leave for federal workers? Why not?

It’s a bit ironic that the relative lack of political concern was needed to free Obama up this way, since these progressive policy moves are almost all extremely popular. So from where Hillary Clinton sits, they present a series of opportunities. The president can use the bully pulpit to bring attention to an issue like family leave, then Clinton can incorporate it into her campaign, and Republicans get forced to talk about an issue they’d rather ignore. (We’ve already seen this dynamic play out a bit on climate change.) This shows that it’s way too simplistic to assess whether Obama is an asset or a drag on Clinton just by looking at what his approval rating is today compared to last week.

I have no doubt Clinton sincerely thinks mandated paid leave is a good idea (last June she said that she supported it, but didn’t think that it could be accomplished politically). The Obama administration’s actions could encourage her to move the issue higher on her campaign agenda, whether she might have done so otherwise or not. If the administration keeps doing this kind of thing, it not only could give Clinton backup, but even push her a bit to the left.