In the early days of the Democratic primaries, Team Obama watched in horror as heir apparent Hillary Clinton stumbled and fumbled her way through contests against unlikely rival Bernie Sanders.
The former First Lady, former Secretary of State, former Senator — one of the most qualified presidential candidates in modern history — seemed uninspired and uninspiring, awkward on the stump and seen with suspicion by key swathes of the electorate, including, incredibly, women.
There was talk of an early presidential endorsement to prod the election-winning “Obama coalition” — African Americans, Latinos and college-educated whites — into getting behind her.
But that was a last-ditch nuclear option, one which risked fracturing the party and would inject Obama into the center of the election when he still had a year of governing left to focus on.
Instead, Obama more subtly put his hand on the scales.
“She’s extraordinarily experienced – and, you know, wicked smart,” Obama told Politico in a January interview.
“(She) knows every policy inside and out – sometimes (that) could make her more cautious and her campaign more prose than poetry, but those are also her strengths. It means that she can govern and she can start here, day one, more experienced than any non-vice president has ever been who aspires to this office.”
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Even before that glowing appraisal, it had been an open secret that the Obama White House saw Clinton, whom he beat in 2008, rather than Sanders as the guarantor of his legacy.
The leftist Vermont Senator may be likeable and may say things that appeal to the same young voters who helped bring Obama to the White House. But if he became the nominee his narrow electoral appeal could likely spell crushing defeat in the general election, bringing Obama’s legacy into question.
Facing a hostile Congress in his second term, Obama has leaned heavily on executive actions to make his mark as president.
But executive actions to prevent millions of illegal immigrants from deportation, weakening the Cuba embargo, a nuclear deal with Iran, or tackling climate change could be undone with the stroke of a Republican presidential pen.
So there was relief when Clinton hugged Obama hard, improved her pitch, won big among black and Hispanic voters in southern states and began a relentless marching toward the 2,383 delegates needed to secure the party nomination.
Today the Democratic race continues, but the outcome seems in less doubt. Now it is the vitriolic no-holds-bared Republican race that has drawn Obama into the election race faster than expected.
As the White House’s concerns about Clinton have ebbed, its concerns about Donald Trump have grown.