President Obama's low approval ratings — 42 percent in the latest Gallup dailies — pose a clear bind for Hillary Clinton. If those ratings continue, she will have to choose between supporting a president popular with the African-American base she hopes to woo and distancing herself to appeal to the broader electorate.
Politico reports on Monday that Obama's drooping approval is "testing" the Obama-Clinton "bond." That personal bond was already a weak one, Scotch-taped into place once Obama tapped Clinton to be his first Secretary of State. The 2008 campaign — acrimonious in part because of how obvious Clinton's ascension seemed in 2007 — was not the sort of thing that would necessary inspire a life-long friendship. The link that formed on Obama's so-called "team of rivals" (which only really applied to the Clinton pick) was not between the two politicians, but between Clinton and the Obama administration. The legacy of her most prominent political position is cemented to the Obama administration's record.
"Clinton’s close association with Obama could deprive any serious primary challenger of oxygen but become difficult in a general election if voters are looking for change," Politico writes. The measure of the extent to which people are looking for change are those poll numbers. Gallup's weekly average shows that the president remains popular with Democrats (77 percent approval) and, in particular, African-Americans (81 percent). But white voters (Democrats included) are a far different story — only 30 percent approve of the job the president is doing. Speaking to This Week on Sunday, Obama's former advisor David Plouffe insisted that Obama's fortunes would reverse. As they have before: In the summer of 2011, Obama's weekly Gallup favorability was as low as it is now. But if the trend holds as 2016 approaches, and whites continue to strongly oppose Obama, Clinton — a former administration official — will be in a difficult position.
Over the weekend, The New York Times' Amy Chozick and Jonathan Martin looked at Clinton's very deliberate efforts to appeal to black voters. "Mrs. Clinton used two of her most high-profile speeches, including one before a black sorority convention, to address minority voting rights — an explosive issue among African-Americans since the Supreme Court struck down part of the Voting Rights Act in June," they report. Chozick and Martin also note that "there have been constant personal gestures, especially by the former president," to the black community. The former president bears much of the blame for any tension with the black community, of course. During the 2008 race, Bill Clinton dismissed Obama's overwhelming victory in South Carolina by suggesting that Jesse Jackson also won a primary in the state.
This outreach is framed about cementing every possible constituency: "It would be difficult for a progressive candidate to rise if the former first lady takes back the black voters she lost to Mr. Obama and retains the blue-collar white voters who flocked to her." That split, however, was almost entirely based on who Clinton was running against in 2008. Black voters rallied around Obama, and some immeasurable part of the blue-collar support for Clinton was a reaction to the president's race. As Slate's Dave Weigel noted earlier this month, Obama's victory is inseparable from his support among black voters, and, therefore, so is Clinton's loss. If those euphemistic blue-collar voters continue to oppose Obama's presidency as 2016 primaries ramp up, a candidate tied to the president could be at a disadvantage. If white voters strongly oppose Obama that November and black voters are apathetic, any Democrat could be in trouble.
At The Washington Post, John Sides argues that Clinton's outreach to the black community isn't necessary. Differentiating between black voters and black leaders, he notes that a "Quinnipiac University survey from this past July suggested that little has changed: 88 percent of blacks had favorable views of Clinton." In other words: she's still very popular. Or she was in July. Should she begin to distance herself from an increasingly unpopular Obama, it's very uncertain how the electorate would respond.