Barack Obama’s mission on behalf of Hillary Clinton is personal and political. He is testifying to her virtues as a would-be president in a way only a current president can. He insists that the administration both of them helped fashion has been good for the country. And he is safeguarding his legacy by ensuring his time in the White House is not seen by history as having culminated in the election of Donald Trump.
But his witness on her behalf also reflects a profound change in our politics since a 2008 campaign in which Obama and Clinton represented a very different view of how the system works, how change happens, and how progressivism should be understood.
Back then, Obama promised that things could be done differently, that the divisions between red and blue were artificial, and that goodwill could prevail. He aspired to transform the nation in a way Bill Clinton never did.
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The most telling criticism Hillary Clinton offered of Obama was a sardonic commentary in late February 2008 on his optimism about the opposition he would face. “I could stand up here and say: Let’s just get everybody together, let’s get unified,” she said. “The sky will open, the light will come down, celestial choirs will be singing, and everyone will know we should do the right thing, and the world will be perfect.”
She added: “Maybe I’ve just lived a little longer, but I have no illusions about how hard this is going to be.”
Both of them have now lived a little longer and both have seen how the relentless oppositionism of the Republican Party led inexorably to Trump, the most dangerous and irresponsible nominee any major political party has ever put forward. Never before has a candidate asked a foreign power to conduct espionage on the United States, as Trump did on Wednesday. “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” he said. Never before has a campaign become a national emergency.
This alone would justify Obama’s passionate intervention on Clinton’s behalf. But there is more: Both find themselves on the same side of internal Democratic arguments about how change is achieved, and how fast it can come. Both must grapple with an impatience embodied in Bernie Sanders’ campaign and his call for a political revolution. The truth is that both Obama and Clinton were always evolutionists and reformists, always about the politics of the possible.
And now both will vigorously defend the achievements of Obama’s tenure while also insisting that Clinton will tend to problems that remain unsolved – either because they are long-term challenges that predated Obama’s time in office, or because the solutions they both favor have been blocked by a recalcitrant Republican Congress that fundamentally opposes not only what they want to do, but also the direction in which Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and other progressives would move the nation.
In any circumstances, progressives in power face an excruciating predicament. They are in principle opposed to the status quo and want to change it. Yet as stewards of government, they are responsible for the status quo and are held accountable for its shortcomings. When government is divided, as ours is now, the problem is even worse: When progressives hold executive power, they can be blamed for failing to undertake initiatives that they would pursue if they were not foiled by a legislative opposition. The same opposition can then turn around and blame them for failing to act.
Clinton, the person who never had illusions about how hard things would be, can relate to the dilemma that Obama has had to live with for much of his presidency.
Fortunately for them both, Trump presents such a radical departure from anything the political system has seen that he has vastly simplified Obama’s task. The president’s brief for Clinton rests less on ideology than on her sense of responsibility and her preparation for the job. He can argue that the election of her opponent presents incalculable risks for a country that, judging from his approval rating, has on the whole come to appreciate his approach.
Obama and Clinton are more than ever bound to the same argument: The changes Trump threatens are not the ones the country should want, and the changes the country does want would only be possible under Clinton.
Thus will a leader who won office promising “change we can believe in” turn to the task of defending continuity we can believe in.
E.J. Dionne’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @EJDionne.