You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Hillary’s Unpopularity Is a Good Thing for Progressives

Why the left should be relieved that Clinton needs Obama's help.

Feng Li/Getty

For as long as Hillary Clinton has been a national political figure, the conversation surrounding her has been about her authenticity, or lack thereof. There has been an assumption, held by many in the press and in politics, that there was a real Hillary lurking somewhere just out of sight. Public Hillary Clinton, the narrative goes, is calculated and precise and ever-fearful of going off-script—terrified, in other words, of letting the country see who she really is.

It’s an overblown narrative, and one that persists in part because of the pernicious sexism that has followed Clinton throughout her public life. But there is some truth to it. Clinton’s strength as a candidate, especially against someone as unhinged as Donald Trump, is that she’s careful. Her calm and compassionate response to the massacre in Orlando, contrasted with Trump’s self-important display of bombast, is case in point. Clinton is most interested in making the right (or at least the winning) political decisions, more so than in infusing those political decisions with her personality.

Perhaps because her primary battle with Senator Bernie Sanders has been less contentious than the one she fought with Barack Obama in 2008—or perhaps because she learned lessons from the primary she lost—Clinton has seemed more comfortable on stage than ever before. The speech she gave declaring victory in the Democratic Primary earlier this month was probably the best she’s ever given. It was marked by earned triumph. “Yes, there are still ceilings to break for women and men for all of us,” she said, shortly after talking about her mother’s influence on her life. “But don’t let anyone tell you that great things can’t happen in America. Barriers can come down. Justice and equality can win.” It was a perfect Clinton moment: The personal and the political were inseparable.

And yet, there is every indication that that was a Clinton we may not see very often during the general election campaign. Trump’s unpopularity might be historically high—and he’s making it worse by the day—but her own levels are also historically high. Not just for her (she just hit her highest level of unpopularity ever) but for a Democratic nominee for president. Meanwhile, President Barack Obama’s approval ratings are soaring: 53 percent of the country think he’s doing a good job. For the first time since George H.W. Bush was elected on the back of Ronald Reagan’s popularity, Clinton could coast to the White House by arguing that she represents a sitting president’s third term. And Obama seems willing to be an enthusiastic surrogate. Trump, after all, represents an existential threat to his presidential legacy, and he’s been itching to get out on the campaign trail since at least December.

Clinton may be too unpopular to run a campaign predicated only on opposition to Trump, yet campaigning with Obama—and campaigning on his legacy—carries a great degree of irony. Not only did Obama defeat Clinton by arguing that there was a generational difference between the two of them—that she represented the past, and he represented the future—but the two have serious differences, both substantive and temperamental. But despite their differences, particularly in foreign policy (where Obama’s “Don’t Do Dumb Shit” Doctrine was and remains starkly opposed to Clinton’s hawkishness), Clinton has every incentive to wed her candidacy to Obama’s policies. Whereas a third Obama term might have seemed like a liability a year ago, it’s a strength now. She’s too good of a politician not to use a popular, well-liked president to help win the White House.

All of that means, however, that the authenticity debate will continue. Hillary Clinton is as constrained as ever. Her own unpopularity means that she will likely pitch her campaign as a third term of Obama, rather than differentiate herself from him. Nevertheless, this is almost certainly a good thing for progressives worried about a centrist, hawkish Clinton presidency. Clinton needs Obama to win the presidency, and that fact alone may keep her further left than she would go were that not the case.

Clinton often showed uneasiness in Obama’s shadow as secretary of state, when she pushed for a more muscular foreign policy, particularly in Libya and in Syria. That uneasiness has continued on the campaign trail, despite the fact that her political fate is now tied to the president.

Orlando is, once again, instructive. In the wake of the massacre, Clinton cautiously followed Obama’s lead—she didn’t call Orlando an act of terror until he did. There’s no point in getting ahead of the (popular) president who is days away from hitting the trail for you. And yet, Clinton did break from him—and to the right, at that—by signaling a willingness to use the phrase “radical Islamism.” This was the kind of general election rightward tilt that many progressives feared she would take. Though it may have been nothing more than her playing politics and trying to neutralize one of her opponent’s favorite lines of attack, it also suggested a willingness (and perhaps overeagerness on her campaign’s behalf) to go after disaffected Republicans. It’s no surprise that Dick Armitage, who served in the Reagan and George W. Bush administrations, endorsed Clinton after the attacks.

Given the options of Trump’s belligerent foreign policy, Clinton’s hawkish instincts, and Obama’s wary foreign policy and economic progressivism, the latter is the best progressives can hope for in a Clinton-Trump election. Obama is a natural compromiser, which, given the realities of Congress, made him a more centrist president than many hoped or expected. But he was the most liberal president the country has seen since Jimmy Carter, or perhaps even Lyndon B. Johnson.

Now Sanders, who it seems will not drop out before the party’s convention in July, has moved the needle further left. Clinton is a triangulator, yes, but triangulating in this new political reality means that she moves left, not right—and Donald Trump’s plummeting numbers means she has the freedom to do so. The very thing that infuriates progressives (and many others) about her—her cold calculation—could be what makes her the kind of candidate even Bernie die-hards, can accept, if not actively support. (This may, in fact, be the real Hillary after all. If you spend your entire career triangulating, at a certain point you may start to believe it. Cynical projects, conducted for long enough, can become existential belief.)

Of course, what Clinton does in the White House is another question altogether. She is perhaps the most constrained candidate in modern political history, but that may bode well for her presidency, should that come to pass. Clinton’s own unpopularity should push her further left in the general election than she would ordinarily be inclined to go, which means that progressives could hold her accountable to the promises that she made. That isn’t much for progressives chafing against Obama’s cautious centrism and inclination for compromise, but it’s certainly the best available option.