The early win­ner of the 2016 cam­paign: Obama

Cecil Whig - - OPINION - Eu­gene Robin­son

— If you look at the polls, it is clear who’s win­ning in the 2016 pres­i­den­tial con­test: Barack Obama.

There re­mains the tech­ni­cal im­ped­i­ment that the pres­i­dent is con­sti­tu­tion­ally barred from a third term. But the longer the cam­paign goes on, the higher Obama’s ap­proval rat­ing rises. This should be bad for Don­ald Trump and good for the even­tual Demo­cratic nom­i­nee, al­most cer­tainly Hil­lary Clin­ton. But it is even bet­ter for Obama’s legacy.

Ac­cord­ing to Gallup, which has been chart­ing the na­tion’s as­sess­ment of its pres­i­dents longer than any­one else, Obama’s ap­proval stands at 52 per­cent, com­pared with 44 per­cent dis­ap­proval. That may not look im­pres­sive but it is ac­tu­ally quite good for a pres­i­dent near­ing the end of his sec­ond term; Ron­ald Rea­gan, by com­par­i­son, had 49 per­cent ap­proval at this point in his ten­ure.

For most of last year, Obama’s num­bers were up­side-down — more Amer­i­cans dis­ap­proved than ap­proved. So there are two ob­vi­ous ques­tions: What air­port is go­ing to be re­named Obama International? And why the turn­around?

I be­lieve the in­creas­ingly warm feel­ings about the pres­i­dent must have some­thing to do with the con­trast be­tween him and his po­ten­tial suc­ces­sors. Trump and Clin­ton may be the most widely dis­liked ma­jor-party con­tenders ever (though Trump is ar­guably in a class of his own, with nearly two-thirds of Amer­i­cans say­ing they would never, un­der any cir­cum­stances, vote for him as pres­i­dent.)

The spec­u­la­tion about when Trump will shift tac­tics and be­gin act­ing “pres­i­den­tial” is laugh­able. It should be clear by now that Trump is not only un­will­ing to change but in­ca­pable of do­ing so. Look at the way he con­tin­ues to lash out at any­one he per­ceives as hav­ing slighted him — New Mex­ico Gov. Su­sana Martinez, for ex­am­ple, a po­ten­tially valu­able ally whom Trump is de­ter­mined to make into an enemy. Look at the news con­fer­ence Tues­day at which he lashed out at a re­porter, call­ing him a “sleaze,” for hav­ing ques­tioned Trump’s record of char­i­ta­ble giv­ing.

Then look at Obama. What­ever you think of his poli­cies, not for a minute has he failed to com­port him­self with the dig­nity and grav­i­tas re­quired to serve as pres­i­dent. Never has he given the im­pres­sion of act­ing out of pique rather than cal­cu­la­tion. Never does he seem a threat to put ego-grat­i­fi­ca­tion above what he be­lieves to be the best

WASH­ING­TON

in­ter­ests of the na­tion.

I’m set­ting a low bar here. The fact that Trump does not clear it has to en­gen­der a de­gree of fond­ness for Obama — and has to help Clin­ton, who does the grav­i­tas thing just fine.

An­other fac­tor in Obama’s ris­ing ap­proval has to be the re­al­iza­tion that despite Repub­li­can procla­ma­tions of doom and gloom, on bal­ance things are go­ing pretty well. Slow but steady eco­nomic ex­pan­sion has not only re­duced un­em­ploy­ment to 5 per­cent but also per­haps be­gun to move the nee­dle slightly on in­comes. Con­sumer con­fi­dence, an im­por­tant in­di­ca­tor, is up. The ef­fect of the re­cov­ery hardly feels like a boom but is noth­ing like the to­tal bust that Trump and other Repub­li­cans de­scribe.

The pres­i­dent has been in­creas­ingly forth­right in show­cas­ing his ad­min­is­tra­tion’s record — his re­marks in In­di­ana on the econ­omy this week sounded al­most like a vin­tage Obama cam­paign speech. He has also demon­strated his in­ten­tion to do ev­ery­thing he can to en­sure that his suc­ces­sor is a Demo­crat who seeks to build on his achieve­ments, not dis­man­tle them.

Like many pres­i­dents in their final months, Obama is spend­ing con­sid­er­able time and ef­fort on for­eign af­fairs. Here, too, we see con­trast and legacy. He has fun­da­men­tally changed the U.S.-Cuba re­la­tion­ship in ways that will be hard for any­one to re­verse. He has con­tin­ued to act with ex­treme cau­tion in the Mid­dle East, re­sist­ing calls for sub­stan­tial de­ploy­ment of U.S. com­bat forces. He made a bold state­ment against nu­clear pro­lif­er­a­tion by vis­it­ing Hiroshima and hug­ging a survivor of the atomic bomb­ing that turned the city into a smolder­ing waste­land — con­fronting the past with­out apol­ogy but with sober re­flec­tion.

Trump, on the other hand, be­lieves it would be fine if Ja­pan and South Korea got nu­clear weapons of their own.

We tend to ap­pre­ci­ate pres­i­dents more af­ter they leave of­fice. The in­evitable re­assess­ment of the Obama years seems to be start­ing early — per­haps in ap­pre­hen­sion of the years to come. Even Obama’s harsh­est crit­ics have to ad­mit he was a steady hand in the White House. Re­flec­tion upon this fact can only in­crease Clin­ton’s chances against a man who prides him­self on be­ing com­bat­ive, capri­cious and cock­sure.

Eu­gene Robin­son is a syn­di­cated colum­nist. Con­tact him at eu­gen­er­obin­son@wash­post.com.

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