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WASHINGTON – You might think the candidates have the most invested in the 2016 presidential election, but someone else has nearly as much riding on the outcome: President Obama.
Although he will not appear on the ballot, Obama believes his legacy hangs in the balance of the 2016 election. He has implemented policy on climate change, detente with Cuba and other issues through sweeping use of his executive power, all of which could be stripped away by any future Oval Office occupant.
Thus, his legacy likely flourishes under a Democratic successor or disassembles under a Republican.
Obama has made it clear to aides that once he’s done hiking and snorkeling with his family in Hawaii during the holidays, he will gear up for a hard campaign of legacy preservation, according to administration officials familiar with his plans. He’ll raise money to fill Democratic coffers and target the key communities that would make up a winning coalition for the party, including blacks, Latinos, educated single women and young voters, to encourage them to go to the polls.
Political analysts say Obama could be an important weapon in the Democratic effort to hold on to the White House.
“Politics in 2016 is about motivation more than persuasion,” said Dan Pfeiffer, a longtime former political adviser to the Obama campaigns and White House. “The challenge for the Democratic nominee is to motivate a coalition of voters who have only ever turned out when President Obama was on the ballot.”
Obama’s popularity with those voters remains strong, and starting with his final State of the Union address Jan. 12, Obama will roll out an agenda aimed at rallying them once again. For instance, he is considering taking significant executive action as soon as next week to prevent more gun sales to violent felons and others, and the White House is exploring ways to require more background checks for would-be gun buyers.
Obama also plans to tackle issues that appeal to those constituencies, such as criminal justice reform.
“The president is acutely aware that the best way to cement the gains made over the past eight years is to make sure a Democrat succeeds him,” one adviser, who was not authorized to discuss the president’s plans, said on condition of anonymity. “He’ll work hard to make sure that happens.”
Unlike his predecessors, Obama’s plans do not include hiding out in an attempt to save his party’s nominee from his own baggage. Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush were seen primarily as political threats to the men they endorsed to succeed them.
Front-runner Hillary Clinton and the rest of the Democratic primary candidates have embraced Obama to varying degrees. In her stump speech, she says she would build on the Obama gains and warns against backsliding on his health care reforms.
She also sides with him on gun control and even doubles down on the controversial question of how much Obama uses his executive powers.
On Election Day, Obama could prove to be a lifeline to the coalition of voters Democrats need to retain the White House.
Turnout among black voters, who vote overwhelmingly for Democrats, spiked several points to record highs in 2008 and 2012. Latino voters helped deliver Obama’s re-election, with less than 30 percent backing his rival, the lowest level for a Republican in several elections.
That points to a potential problem with his strategy for 2016, when another Democrat’s name will lead the ballot.
“He’s an incredible performer on the biggest political stage, with the potential to be an asset with minorities and younger voters who were crucial components of a winning Democratic coalition in 2008 and 2012,” said Kevin Madden, a Republican strategist not working for any of the candidates. “The problem for Hillary Clinton is that Obama’s appeal to these voters is not transferable.”