Obama’s Clinton Calculation

The notion that Barack Obama would ask Hillary Clinton to join him on the Democratic ticket was something between far-fetched

The notion that Barack Obama would ask Hillary Clinton to join him on the Democratic ticket was something between far-fetched and delusional when it was introduced months ago. And it remains problematic now, weeks (or maybe even days) before Obama at last reveals his selection. Still, something significant has changed since early June, when the Democratic race ended and Obama set off to unify the party and reintroduce himself to the broader November electorate.

Back then, an air of supreme confidence – if not outright hubris – surrounded his campaign, and for good reason. Every historical and statistical indicator pointed to a Democratic victory in the fall, and turnout in the party’s primaries – nearly 40 million voters – had shattered all previous records. Republicans, meanwhile, had little internal enthusiasm for their presumptive nominee, with some not-so-quietly observing that a general election wipeout might be best for them in the long run– the perfect impetus for a well-overdue intra-party housecleaning.

At the time, Obama enjoyed a slight lead over John McCain in the polls, but most everyone – the McCain campaign included – figured it would be short-lived. Their primary over, Democrats would unite and Obama’s advantage would swell to the high single digits, maybe even into double digits.

It was in this atmosphere that Obama boldly thumbed his nose at public campaign funding, calculating that he could raise hundreds of millions more on his own – and then use the windfall to radically transform the electoral map, flipping even the darkest red states blue with a massive ground game and an unprecedented television advertising blitz. The election offered an opportunity not just for victory, the Obama people realized, but for a historic landslide.

At around the same time, Clinton let it be known that she’d be interested in the No. 2 spot on Obama’s ticket, and her most loyal and vocal supporters fanned out to talk her up. Publicly, Obama’s response was polite and respectful, if not at all energetic. He talked about how qualified his vanquished foe was and how “she’d be on anybody’s short list.” But his actions made it clear that she wasn’t actually on his short list.

This made perfect sense back in June. Obama’s bullish fall prospects seemed to give him wide latitude in choosing his running mate, allowing him to focus on what kind of person he’d want to govern with – not what kind of politician he’d need to win in the fall. And Clinton clearly is not someone with whom Obama wants to govern. There’s no personal relationship between the two, just an abundance of ill will and mistrust. With Clinton as his VP, there’d always be the question of whose agenda she was actually pursuing. And there’s the whole unpleasant matter of Bill, too. Maybe Clinton would bring a few extra points to the Democratic ticket, but since Obama was so likely to win anyway, he could afford to think past November.

Two months later, though, Obama’s the fall forecast for Obama is hazier. That 10-point summer lead materialized for about a week in June and then promptly vanished, never to be seen again. Just about every poll still has Obama leading, but almost never by more than five or six points. And two surveys last week actually put McCain ahead (albeit by a statistically insignificant one point). It’s easy to read too much into polls like these. After all, they may just reflect the era of intense partisan polarization we now live in, and a six-point lead might be the best that either party could hope for now. And if Obama does win by six on Election Day, it would be the best performance for a Democrat in 44 years. Most people still expect him to win (if Intrade is any measure).

But Obama has had trouble providing reassurance to voters.

Clearly, the race – as even McCain’s advisers have admitted – is a referendum on Obama. His support has fluctuated over the summer, periodically rising to the high 40s and even the low 50s, while McCain’s has basically remained static. Polls show that voters want to learn more about Obama, while they feel they already know McCain. Polls also show that most voters consider Obama the “riskier” choice and that – by a 24-point margin – they would have more confidence in McCain as the commander in chief than Obama. Even a well-executed overseas trip, in which Obama made personal calls on numerous foreign leaders, provided only a fleeting bump in the polls. Voters liked what they saw, it seemed, but then their doubts quickly returned.

The good news for Obama is that a majority of voters still seem inclined to support him. They like him personally and – perhaps more importantly – are deeply troubled by the idea of keeping the White House in Republican hands. They mostly like McCain, too, but this doesn’t matter nearly as much, given his poisonous party label. McCain can only win by reinforcing every doubt that any voter has about Obama, and introducing a few new ones while he’s at it. Obama’s challenge is to ease these doubts and to reassure voters who are looking to be reassured. If he achieves this, victory is certain – and a lopsided one is quite possible.

There are numerous ways for Obama to provide this reassurance. Maybe a commanding debate performance in the fall will do it – that was all it took for Ronald Reagan, who had to ease voters’ fears that he was a trigger-happy maniac, to turn a neck-and-neck race into a blowout 28 years ago. And maybe McCain, through an ill-timed gaffe or slip-up, will do it for him.

But there’s another way that may seem more tempting now than it once did: teaming up with Clinton. Yes, her presence would turn off some independent voters, but it would also fully unify the party and – far more importantly – it would offer powerful emotional reassurance to the wavering voters who want to support Obama but who are liable to succumb to attacks on his experience. For millions of casual voters, Clinton has come to represent the very toughness and seasoning that Obama is said to lack. They want to vote Democratic this fall, but if they believe Obama is too risky, they will default to McCain, the “safe” choice. By picking Clinton, Obama would be telling these voters, in effect, that he’ll be operating with adult supervision.

Sending such a message, of course, would be rather humiliating for him. And while Clinton might solve some electoral problems, it would come at a high price, as Obama would then be saddled with a vice president he doesn’t want and may not trust.

Two months ago, those considerations were an absolute deal-breaker. But if, two weeks from now, his position versus McCain has dramatically weakened, you’d have to wonder if that calculation would change.

Obama’s Clinton Calculation