As the presumptive Democratic front-runner in 2016, Hillary Rodham Clinton has many of the same goals as President Obama, starting with reassembling and reenergizing the coalition responsible for Obama’s victories in 2008 and 2012.
But if she becomes the nominee, Clinton will have to unlink herself from Obama while positioning herself to inherit the bloc of young people and minorities that helped put Obama in the White House.
“Young people want to be inspired by someone and something,” said Stephanie Cutter, a partner at the Democratic consulting firm Precision Strategies and Obama’s deputy campaign manager in 2012. “The president can and will help energize them over the next two years, but he’s not on the ballot in 2016. The next nominee must also reach and inspire them.”
The poor showing by Democrats in last week’s midterm elections has forced Obama to reboot his second-term agenda and try to restore the Democrats to political health — as his star as party leader begins to fade and Clinton’s is on the rise.
Over time, the interests of the country’s two leading Democrats will not always align.
For now, a prevailing view among Democrats holds that the Republican Congress will make it easier for Clinton to define herself and blunt the need to criticize or draw comparisons with Obama.
“President Obama’s legacy is now entirely dependent on the election of a Democratic successor as president who will protect and extend it, not demolish it,” said David Brock, a Clinton ally and chairman of the pro-Democratic super PAC American Bridge. “Should she run, they both now have a common enemy in a Republican Congress that will define politics through 2016.”
As Clinton seeks to differentiate herself, strategists said, she probably will try to show voters what she would do differently in key areas in which Obama has disappointed many Democrats, such as immigration policy, and move even more aggressively on environmental issues.
“I would underline the fact that they have very, very different and separate roles,” said Geoff Garin, a Clinton adviser and pollster in 2008. “While there will be plenty of times when it will be in each other’s interest to kind of reinforce the issues and messages of the other, I think more frequently the imperative will be to stay out of each other’s way.”
One longtime Obama adviser said the president is well aware that Clinton will have to distance herself from him and publicly question things he does. Obama is unconcerned about that, the adviser said, citing Clinton’s somewhat pointed criticism of Obama this year over U.S. policy in Syria.
“He didn’t care,” said the adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the president’s thinking. “He’s a pretty confident guy.”
In an interview, White House senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer took the long view of Obama’s common cause with Clinton and future Democrats. “If the Obama coalition can become the Democratic coalition, it will shape the contours of the debate for years to come and pave the way for a lot of things we feel strongly about, that may not get done in our last two years,” Pfeiffer said.
Although Obama is deeply invested in having his party hold on to the White House, there may be times that he will pursue policies at odds with the next nominee’s interests.
“History would say that the fortunes of other Democrats is not what drives Barack Obama’s decision-making,” said Jamal Simmons, a principal with the Raben Group, a Democratic consulting firm.
Republicans view Obama as a doubled-edged sword against Clinton — though he is unpopular at the moment, he is the one Democrat who has been able to turn out voters.
“When the Obama campaign won in ’08, it was a hostile takeover of the Democratic Party,” said Stuart Stevens, chief strategist for Republican Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign. “With two historic back-to-back midterm defeats, all of their operations, their technology, have proven to be ineffective when Barack Obama is not on the ballot.”
But Democrats do not believe Republicans have won over Obama’s base — or that they can.
Mo Elleithee, Democratic National Committee communications director, said that Democrats cannot “be complacent” but that they have held on to key groups even in off-year elections.
Still, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), the DNC chairman, said Saturday that she was starting a review of “what went wrong” with the party’s performance. “The electoral success we have when our presidential nominee is able to make the case to the country as a whole doesn’t translate in other elections,” she said.
Several of the groups that backed Obama in large numbers when he was on the ballot — young people, Latinos and single women — came out in lower numbers on Nov. 4 or shifted somewhat away from the Democrats.
Latinos — who constituted 10 percent of the electorate in 2012 and favored Obama by 44 points over Romney — backed Democrats by a 26-point margin this time, according to exit polls. Asian Americans split evenly between the two parties in the midterm elections, contrasting with the last presidential election, in which they supported Obama by 47 points.
Some of the president’s critics believe that Democrats abandoned their base voters, who then returned the favor.
“If this November was any indication about what happens when you try to toy with your principles and your beliefs, what did you get? Nothing,” Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez (D-Ill.) said recently, questioning why the White House delayed issuing an executive order on immigration. “You lost the Senate, and you angered and disillusioned a community that has always been so loyal to you as a party.”
Many inside and outside the White House are particularly concerned about how the party can reconnect and recapture voters between the ages of 18 and 29, who had once been so much more enthusiastic about the president. Those voters made up 19 percent of the electorate in 2012 but 13 percent this year.
The White House and a Clinton campaign would have natural common cause over the next two years in bolstering Democrats’ traditional advantage among women, strategists said, whether rhetorically or through new administration initiatives. Both Obama and Clinton are likely to draw contrasts with the GOP Congress, and particularly anything it does on abortion or contraception coverage.
An emphasis on reproductive rights did not save the reelection bid of Sen. Mark Udall (D) in Colorado on Tuesday. But Marcy Stech, spokeswoman for the Democratic group Emily’s List, credits the themes of women’s economic security and empowerment — which Clinton would be likely to carry forward — as reasons more women turned out this year compared with the 2010 midterms.
“That conversation will live on, especially when it comes to raising the minimum wage, ending gender discrimination in pay, and women’s access to health care,” Stech said.
However, Simon Rosenberg, president of the New Democrat Network, warned in a memo Friday that last week’s results make the playing field much more difficult for Democrats.
Party officials, he said, need to acknowledge the new structural challenges now that the GOP will control not only the House and the Senate but 32 governorships and 66 of the 99 state legislative chambers. Republicans’ wins outside the presidency “may even leave the GOP a stronger national party” by virtue of its “strength of candidates, bench, staff and consultant talent, fundraising capacity, use of technology and of course control over government and policy.”
To the extent that such an assessment is true, it is a shared problem for Obama and the next Democratic nominee. The consequences of failing to rebuild, however, are more dire for the 2016 nominee, and therefore many expect that much of the rebuilding will fall to Clinton.
The GOP is eager to link Clinton to Obama. Republican National Committee spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski sent reporters a scorecard noting Democratic losses. “After a historic rebuke, the Obama-Clinton policies will be on the ballot again in 2016,” it read.
Major Obama donors already are lining up for Clinton, lessening worry among her advisers that very loyal Obama backers would be reticent about a second Clinton candidacy.
The morning after the midterms, political organizers working for Hollywood mogul and major Democratic donor Jeffrey Katzenberg began securing promises for future donations to Priorities USA Action, the super PAC that would serve as the big-money advertising vehicle for Clinton.
“We will be reaching out in the weeks ahead to set up one-on-ones and meet-and-greets to talk about the urgency of the task ahead,” said Andy Spahn, a political strategist who advises Katzenberg and other clients. Meanwhile, Clinton is quietly setting up meetings with potential supporters and advisers. A 10th-anniversary celebration for the William J. Clinton Library and Museum in Arkansas next week is expected to provide a setting for sideline strategy sessions for a Hillary Clinton campaign. One key tactical question will be how much distance she should put between herself and Obama, particularly in light of last week’s dismal results.
Rosenberg argues that even those results suggest that the answer is not too much.
“Looking ahead to 2016, I think it would be wise for the entire party, but particularly its presidential aspirants, to learn the lesson of [Al] Gore 2000 and the 2014 midterms,” Rosenberg said. “You cannot run away from the president of your party.”
The grass-roots Ready for Hillary PAC, meanwhile, plans a major meeting of donors and financial strategists in New York on Nov. 21. The group sent out a fundraising appeal via e-mail to supporters last Wednesday.
“Don’t let last night’s results discourage you,” it said. “Now more than ever, we need to show Hillary that we’re ready for her to get in this race.”
Karen Tumulty, Matea Gold and David Nakamura contributed to this report.