WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama used to say 2012 was his last election. Then, in 2014, he hit the road for some Democrats in friendly states and called it his last campaign. Now, like it or not, he can’t shake 2016.
Whether it’s Hillary Rodham Clinton’s emails, Gov. Scott Walker’s union fight in Wisconsin, Jeb Bush’s immigration policy or Sens. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal on Iran, Obama is one way or another connected to the presidential aspirations of others.
What’s more, he remains his party’s top fundraising draw, collecting cash for the Democratic National Committee in Atlanta on Tuesday and flying for California on Thursday to dip his card into Los Angeles’ political ATM.
It all highlights that period in a presidency when the White House occupant, no longer running for anything, still looms large as commander in chief, as a party stalwart and as the primary target for the opposition.
Yet even as the president casts his shadow over the next presidential election, the jostling potential candidates hang over him as well.
“If you look at what’s happened in the last three weeks, the presidential candidates have been on the front pages,” said Dana Perino, who presided over a similar period as press secretary for President George W. Bush. “That just sucks all the oxygen out of the room.”
Obama, for one, has shown a willingness to engage the 2016ers.
In a town hall meeting hosted by the Spanish-language TV network Telemundo two weeks ago, he needled former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush over Bush’s criticism of Obama’s executive actions on immigration.
“I appreciate Mr. Bush being concerned about immigration reform,” Obama said. “I would suggest what he do is talk to the speaker of the House and members of his party.”
Earlier this week, he waded into state politics, sharply denouncing Walker for signing legislation in Wisconsin that prohibited mandatory union dues.
“Even as its governor claims victory over working Americans, I’d encourage him to try and score a victory for working Americans — by taking meaningful action to raise their wages and offer them the security of paid leave,” Obama said in a statement.
In both instances, he signaled he was not going to entirely ignore the 2016 contest or its main players if there was an opportunity to advance his own agenda.
“We’re going to engage in this dynamic by being opportunistic,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said in an interview. “That means not popping off with a response every time a Republican comes up with a creative way to insult the president. It also means not necessarily pouncing every time we sense vulnerability on the Republican side.”
Presidential politics has also intruded into some of the top issues on Obama’s plate, most significantly the international negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program and the recent letter from 47 Republican senators to Iranian leaders warning that any deal could expire once Obama leaves office.
Among those signing were Sens. Cruz, Rubio and Rand Paul, all of whom have presidential ambitions. Obama decried the letter, stating that he found it “somewhat ironic that some members of Congress want to make common cause with the hardliners in Iran.”
Soon, 2016 politics were all over the issue. Jindal, the Louisiana governor, attached his name to the letter, and Walker and Bush offered their support in separate statements. Clinton made a direct connection to 2016, tweeting a message Wednesday stating: “GOP letter to Iranian clerics undermines American leadership. No one considering running for commander in chief should be signing on.”
Sara Taylor Fagen, who was Bush’s White House political director, said the environment facing Obama is more intense than what even Bush encountered in 2007, ahead of the 2008 presidential campaign. Then, Obama and Clinton were the main Democratic presidential aspirants, and John McCain was struggling to become the Republican front runner.
“Here you have four or five legitimate (Republican) players in the race right now,” she said. “The volume is higher. The stature of the person in his party is higher and competitive with him. I don’t think we faced this type of conversation until the primaries got underway, or maybe the debates in earnest. This is underway right now.”
No issue has dominated the White House briefing room more in recent days than Clinton’s emails while she was secretary of state. Time and again, Earnest has had to defend the Obama administration’s pledge of transparency while standing by the once and potentially future Democratic presidential candidate.
By Wednesday, after Clinton declared she had turned over all government related emails from her personal server to the State Department, it was evident the White House wanted to turn the page.
“Nobody’s marshalled any evidence that I’ve seen, at least, to indicate that they have fallen short of what they said they did,” Earnest told reporters. “But if you have questions about that process, you should direct that to them.”