Are Obama's Drive and Charisma a Double-edged Sword for Clinton?

Home stretch of campaign combines multidimensional chess, high-stakes poker and no holds barred mud wrestling.

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Barack Obama addresses a Hillary Clinton rally at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, November 2, 2016.
Barack Obama addresses a Hillary Clinton rally at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, November 2, 2016.Credit: Pablo Martinez Monsivais, AP
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
Chapel Hill, NC

CHAPEL HILL, NORTH CAROLINA - In the home stretch of the 2016 elections campaign, both sides are engaged in mutual defamation, political maneuvers and psychological warfare. It’s like a simultaneous tournament of intense mud wrestling, multidimensional chess, and all-in, high-stakes poker. The Democrats’ ace, ironically, is President Barack Obama who used to be known as a cool cucumber with rock-bottom approval ratings. Now he’s not only enjoying a surge of popularity, he seems to be losing his cool as well, possibly out of growing concern that Donald Trump is catching up with Hillary Clinton.

Obama has already broken with precedent by actively campaigning for his party’s designated successor more than any past president, but now he’s accelerating his activities and dialing up his rhetoric. On Tuesday he asserted that part of the opposition to Clinton stems from the fact that she’s a woman. On Wednesday he bluntly intervened in the FBI-Clinton email controversy that he had studiously avoided. And now he’s putting his prestige on the line by urging African Americans to vote for Clinton with the same commitment that they voted for him in 2008 and 2012. Clinton, he’s telling them, c’est moi.

On Wednesday afternoon, accompanied by veteran singer and local boy James Taylor, Obama came to American’s first public institution of higher learning, the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill, a city that in 1968 became the first white municipality in the South to elect an African-American mayor. North Carolina is one of the states in which Clinton hopes to stop Trump’s presidential aspirations, because without it he stands very little chance of winning the elections. But the polls in the state are tightening and the estimated participation levels of African Americans are disappointing, falling significantly under the record levels set by Obama in his two campaigns, either because of an unbridgeable enthusiasm gap compared to Clinton or because efforts by the state’s GOP legislature to suppress the early voting favored by Democrats have been successful. Obama whipped up the crowd, urging them to vote before Saturday, when early voting ends in North Carolina, or on Election Day itself. 

Obama and the First Lady have enlisted as loyal soldiers in the Clinton campaign, but they are also its undisputed superstars, and perhaps that’s also a problem. Hundreds of UNC students lined up patiently for hours and then baked themselves under a hot November sun to be able to participate in Obama’s rally. They cheered him like a rock star on a farewell tour, even though the weak sound system left most of them guessing what was being said. If Clinton came to town, it’s doubtful if half of them would have gone to the trouble, and that’s being generous. In this regard, Obama’s electrifying campaign speeches, like his wife’s, only accentuate the fact that, as far as oratory and charisma are concerned, Clinton n’est pas lui. Not by a long shot.

To compensate, at least partially, Clinton is now opening her campaign’s purse strings and investing millions of dollars in battleground states but also in states, such as Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, which are still considered to be safely in her camp. We’re only safeguarding our known assets, her advisers claim, she’s slipping and running scared, Trump’s people respond, citing the ever-tightening polls. 

The Republican candidate’s return in recent days to some states in the northern Midwest seems like a belated effort to resuscitate his “Rust Belt” strategy of changing the political map by recruiting disgruntled working class whites that have voted Democratic, which he abandoned when it seemed no longer viable. Now the experts are wondering whether Trump has secret polls indicating potential upsets in these states or whether he’s simply playing mind games with Clinton’s campaign advisers and forcing them to spend time and money in states that are hers anyway.

The same puzzle persists in Arizona, from the Democratic side. Clinton is investing in the Western state and dispatching her deputy Tim Kaine to campaign there, even though it traditionally votes for Republicans and has seen Trump surge in the polls in recent days Perhaps Clinton is also trying to spook Trump, because if he loses Arizona his road to the White House could turn into a dead end.  Perhaps she is relying on two factors that could help her eke out an upset: The expanded participation of Hispanic voters, who comprise about 15% of the state’s electorate, and the fact that Arizona is also voting on November 8 whether to legalize marijuana. Perhaps the young people expected to come to the polls to vote in favor of marijuana will also do Clinton a favor and vote for her.

But the ultimate Armageddon seems to be emerging in Florida, which has been known to decide presidential battles. After she seemed to have given up on the Sunshine State and moved on to other battlegrounds, Clinton is back with a vengeance. She is encouraged by the anti-Trump rage that seems to be emanating from the Hispanic community, in which usually conservative Cubans are now outnumbered two to one by Mexicans and other Democratic-leaning Latinos.  If African Americans, who are 15 per cent of the electorate, will step up the plate and vote in the same numbers as Hispanics, and if the fantastic poll published on Wednesday by which 28% of early-voting Republicans opted for Clinton is connected to reality, she could easily win Florida. In that case, as Florida goes so goes the nation, and Clinton will be the next President, to Obama’s great relief.

For now the polls continue to tighten, and Democrats are getting edgier and edgier. Things may turn around in the next few days, especially if the public appearance of the woman who claims Trump raped her as a minor twenty years ago, and was slated to speak to the media in Los Angeles on Wednesday night, shifts the main headlines from Clinton’s emails to Trump’s sordid past. They can at least take comfort from the fact that at this same stage in 2012, six days before the elections, Romney and Obama were in a dead heat. Five days before the elections, he even pulled ahead. Obama won the elections by a comfortable 3.9%. The problem is not only that Clinton is not Obama but that history does not repeat itself, and if it does, as Karl Marx noted, then only as a farce.

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