Under the current Democratic president, the United States just had one of its best years for job creation since the 1990s. More than 17 million people have gained access to health insurance. Gas prices are down, crime has declined, and high school graduation rates are at an all-time high.
But none of that has truly become a rallying cry for those in President Obama’s party seeking to succeed him.
Americans are deeply anxious about the nation’s security and their personal finances. Polls show that only one-quarter of them think the country is on the right track. As a result, the Democratic White House hopefuls face a dilemma that Republicans are relishing.
Obama’s would-be successors can talk about all he has accomplished and risk appearing out of touch. Or they can focus on what still needs fixing — and face another set of risks: selling short what their party has produced over the past seven years and alienating Obama’s core supporters.
Attempts to strike the right balance were on display last week at a party dinner in Nevada, an early caucus state, where front-runner Hillary Clinton told a boisterous crowd: “We’re standing, but we’re not yet running the way America should.”
Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.), like Clinton, credited Obama — who is scheduled to give his final State of the Union address Tuesday — for bringing the country back from the brink of financial collapse. But the balance of Sanders’s speech was about the struggles that everyday Americans still face and what more the government should do to help.
“We have made real progress, and we should be proud of what we have accomplished, but — and here is the big ‘but’ — we still have a very, very long way to go to create the kind of country we know we deserve,” Sanders said.
While the U.S. economy has improved on many measures under Obama, even some Democratic partisans acknowledge that the story is complicated. More people have jobs, but wages have remained flat for most Americans for about 15 years, with only modest improvement during Obama’s time in office.
The wage stagnation has “convinced a lot of people the government is inept and corrupt and unable to address their problems,” said Robert J. Shapiro, Bill Clinton’s former chief economic adviser. “It goes a long way to explaining the public’s distrust of government.”
Another factor complicating the party’s messaging is that a Democratic win in the fall would buck history.
Since 1948, the year Harry Truman won a fifth straight election for the Democrats, the same political party has won three consecutive elections only once — when Republican George H.W. Bush was elected in 1988 to succeed President Ronald Reagan.
For the 2016 Democratic hopefuls, “there are two competing factors,” said Stephanie Cutter, a former deputy campaign manager for Obama’s 2012 reelection effort. “The president is enormously popular with Democrats, and for good reason. Yet elections are always about change.
“Even the president, and his Obama coalition of voters, believe we have more to do to make our economy more fair, improve our security and fix our politics,” she said.
Republicans — who have been bashing Obama freely on economic and foreign policy — say the need for Democrats to present a nuanced message will work to the GOP’s advantage.
“If you look at the unemployment rate and nothing else, you’d be surprised,” said Doug Heye, a former Republican National Committee communications director and a longtime GOP operative. “There’s a whole lot more happening there. It’s wages. It’s the labor participation rate. It’s how people feel. It’s also health-care costs.”
If Democrats tried to run campaigns that ignored that reality, they “would be spending a lot of time trying to convince voters of something they don’t see or feel,” Heye said. “The Republican rhetoric is easier. Democrats have to thread a needle.”
For no candidate is the task more difficult than for Clinton, who served in Obama’s administration as secretary of state but often notes that she is not running for a third term of his presidency.
Clinton is not running away from Obama’s record. Especially in early-voting states such as South Carolina, where African American voters make up a majority of the Democratic primary electorate, she has diligently hewed closely to Obama’s legacy.
“I don’t think President Obama gets the credit he deserves,” Clinton has said often.
She also warned, in Nevada on Wednesday, that a Republican president could “rip away all the progress we’ve made.”
When talking about the economy, Clinton acknowledges that by and large, Americans do not think it has fully bounced back from calamity.
“We have too many families struggling at home to try to get ahead and stay ahead,” she said in Nevada. “We need a president who has what it takes to get the job done and make a real difference for you.”
Clinton has also increasingly acknowledged shortcomings in the Affordable Care Act, Obama’s signature achievement on health care. On the debate stage in December, she was asked about some of the problems that Republicans say are signs that the Affordable Care Act is a collapsing house of cards: high deductibles, rising premiums and out-of-pocket costs. Those are just “glitches,” Clinton told moderator Martha Raddatz.
Fast-forward to a month later in New Hampshire, and Clinton’s language was a little different. Glitches had become “problems.”
“What we need to do now is build on it and fix those problems, because there are problems,” Clinton said. “There are problems, and I’m laying out plans for what I would do to cut the cost of out-of-pocket expenses. To bring down the cost of deductibles. To bring down the costs of prescription-drug prices.”
On some issues, including gun control, Clinton has embraced Obama’s record with less equivocation. In recent days, she has praised the president’s executive actions intended to reduce gun violence, highlighting the measures in part to distinguish herself from Sanders, whose record on the issue is more mixed.
Dante Scala, a professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire, said the country’s economic condition when summer returns — and how Americans feel about it — will go a long way toward shaping Clinton’s general-election message if she is the nominee.
“How the economy is looking in June will determine a lot about how Clinton runs going forward,” Scala said. “The facts on the ground aren’t fully formed.”
How to embrace Obama is not such a dilemma for Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist who has been running as an anti-establishment candidate. Less clear is whether that weakens him against Clinton in the bid for Obama voters.
Sanders dwells on income inequality, a problem that has persisted under Obama. And he has not hesitated to speak out on areas where he and the president disagree, including trade policy and a recent crackdown on illegal immigrants who came to the United States fleeing violence in Central America.
Speaking to the crowd in Nevada, he said Obama had “accomplished some very important goals” on health care, including insuring 17 million additional people. “No small thing, and here is the ‘but’ again,” Sanders said. “We can do better. We must do better.”
He went on to call for replacing Obamacare with a single-payer, “Medicare for all” system.
“The United States today remains the only major country on Earth that does not guarantee health care to every man, woman and child,” Sanders said.
Among the three Democratic candidates, former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley has been the most explicit in saying he wants to build on Obama’s agenda. That strategy isn’t helping him emerge from the back of the pack.
Joe Trippi, a veteran Democratic operative, said the Democrats are trying to position themselves as “Obama-plus,” which makes sense from an electoral perspective. “Nobody in the Democratic Party is going to completely run away from two terms of a Democratic president,” Trippi said. “The way to win is to hold together the Obama coalition, and you’re not going to do that by running away from Obama.”