Opinion writer
US Vice President Mike Pence speaks during a swearing-in ceremony for US Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building February 7, 2017 in Washington, DC. / AFP PHOTO / Brendan SmialowskiBRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images Vice President Pence on Feb. 7. (BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)

Not by accident did President Trump bring up Hillary Clinton’s name multiple times at his mind-numbing news conference. Trump has been in office four weeks. He won the election 3½ months ago. Nevertheless, his still feels compelled to bring up his former opponent.

“We had Hillary Clinton give Russia 20 percent of the uranium in our country,” he said. “You know what uranium is, right? This thing called nuclear weapons, and other things. Like, lots of things are done with uranium, including some bad things. Nobody talks about that.” He’s unintelligible and wrong, but his supporters hear: Hillary Clinton gave away uranium. (By the way, during her tenure at State, a sale of a Canadian company with mines in the United States was approved. The sale was to Russian oligarchs. Yes, it’s bad to give Russians a strategic boost, Mr. President.)

Again bringing up Clinton, Trump said at one point, “Hillary Clinton did a reset, remember? With the stupid plastic button that made us all look like a bunch of jerks. Here, take a look. He looked at her like, ‘What the hell is she doing with that cheap plastic button?’ Hillary Clinton. That was the reset. Remember it said ‘Reset’? Now if I do that oh, I’m a bad guy.” Huh? He does want to do a sort of reset, in fact. The critique makes little sense other than as a critique of her prop, but again he in effect tells his base: Clinton was bad, the worst ever.

His Clinton obsession may be traceable to his popular vote loss, which still gnaws at him. More specifically, he knows a large number of voters chose him only because they thought Clinton was worse. Of the 25 percent of the electorate who voted for one candidate because the other was worse, Trump won 50 percent, Clinton only 39 percent. She won pluralities of voters who either strongly favored or had reservations about the candidate they chose. Surely 78,000 people in three states, enough to swing the electoral college to Clinton, voted for Trump because they thought Clinton was worse. His victory depended on voters afflicted with Hillary Derangement Syndrome. Now he must remind voters why they pulled the lever for him.

Trump, like most demagogues, needs an enemy — the elites, the press, Clinton. If he had to survive on his own merits and accomplishments, he’d flop. Press or Trump? Clinton or Trump? It’s all a tactic to keep his own popularity high, or as high as it can be.

Alas, the technique has not really paid off since people tend to judge presidents in office on what they do in office. Trump’s historically horrendous approval numbers (38 approve, 56 disapprove in Gallup; Pew had a nearly identical split, 39/56.) As Trump’s performance sends more voters, and lawmakers, reeling and the investigation of his and his aides’ ties to Russia get underway, we should remember how critical Vice President Pence becomes. If things get really bad — impeachment or some 25th Amendment “solution” — the choice will not be Trump vs. Clinton. It will be Trump vs. Pence, who’d take over if Trump left or was removed. Uh-oh. Pence is in positive territory (43/39 in the Pollster.com average), and among Republicans, especially those on Capitol Hill, he’s exceptionally popular.

If you gave 52 GOP senators a secret ballot and asked if they would prefer Pence or Trump, would Trump get more than a handful of votes? I doubt it. And that, if the facts get dicey and Trump’s behavior gets wackier, will be a big problem for Trump. Democrats, as much as they dislike Pence’s conservative ideology, would no doubt jump for joy if they got Pence instead of Trump. Republicans would rejoice at the prospect of a “normal’ president who might help accomplish their aims.

In other words, if down the road the president continues to unravel, there may be a very big bipartisan consensus to show Trump the door. It’s not like they’d be getting Clinton; they’d be getting the not erratic, not flashy, not crazy Mike Pence.

We are a long way from any of that, but Trump’s barking up the wrong tree if he thinks the ghost of Hillary Clinton will keep his approval rating high. The American people have moved on from the election. Now the question is whether at some point they’ll move beyond him — into Pence’s waiting arms.