POLITICS

Hillary Clinton's Challenge This Election Is Not Just Donald Trump. It's Also Barack Obama.

She’s capable. She’s seasoned. She’s experienced. She’s mature. But she’s not Obama.

28/07/2016 1:34 PM IST | Updated 28/07/2016 3:12 PM IST
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Mike Segar / Reuters
U.S. President Barack Obama and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton appear onstage together after his speech at the Democratic National Convention, July 27, 2016.

"The Boss will speak at 8:30 am, right? Or sooner?"

A friend in Gurgaon tweeted that at me as I was sitting at the dining table in Kolkata, watching the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.

He was referring to Barack Obama of course. And I realized at that moment that Hillary Clinton's great challenge this election is not just Donald Trump. It's also Barack Obama.

Almost eight years after he became President, someone halfway across the world, does not want to miss hearing him speak at a party convention for an election where my friend has no vote. That's a hard act for anyone, not just Clinton, to follow. The Right wants to pillory her as "Crooked Hillary" but Clinton does not need their votes to carry her over the finish line. The Hillary-haters will always hate her and believe she is the Devil Incarnate. But she needs the Obama coalition even though she's no Obama. That is going to be her real challenge.

She's capable. She's seasoned. She's experienced. She's mature. But she's not Obama. Her big speech tomorrow night is much anticipated but his speech was something people really looked forward to. They WANTED to hear Obama. You could see it in the rapt faces. When the self-described "little old lady from Ohio" and Gold Star mom said "I wish every American could hug President Obama" she was speaking for a lot of people in that room.

Jim Young / Reuters
Hillary Clinton hugs U.S. President Barack Obama.

What Obama did tonight was not just endorse Hillary but try and transfer that great virtual hug to her. He knew he was walking into a convention of a party divided, where Bernie Sanders voters were still smarting, where pockets in the hall had booed some of the other speakers. But he knew it was a crowd that still adored him. And a crowd that would miss him intensely, that was not quite ready to let him go even after eight years. This was a crowd that would miss him deeply and personally even if they disagreed vehemently with some policy or the other that he had espoused.

"Hillary Clinton's great challenge this election is not just Donald Trump. It's also Barack Obama."

He could have basked in that adoration. But he did something quite remarkable. He tried to transfer all that energy, all that "four more years" wistfulness in that room, to Clinton. "There has never been a man or a woman, not me, not Bill, more qualified to serve as the President of the United States," he said to thunderous cheers.

There was amazing grace in that performance.

Once Obama had been slammed for saying condescendingly in a debate "You're likeable enough, Hillary". At Philadelphia he remembered that 2008 campaign and said "She was doing everything I was doing. But like Ginger Rogers, backwards in heels." It was a powerful reminder of all the extra hurdles Clinton has had to run to prove herself just as worthy as men running for the same political office.

Mike Segar / Reuters
U.S. President Barack Obama and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.

Candidates often try to distance themselves from the incumbent of the same party as they try to strike a balance between continuity and change. Al Gore kept Bill Clinton at arm's length. John McCain did the same to George W Bush. Hillary Clinton took a huge risk by walking out on the stage at the end of Obama's speech as if they were running mates.

But she understood she has no greater asset in this election than Obama. And by that same token no greater risk. For those who are suspicious of her, it was one more potent reminder that she is no Obama. That he is not on the ballot, she is.

"She was doing everything I was doing. But like Ginger Rogers, backwards in heels."

And she will have to walk the fine line between telling independents that she is her own woman, that she's not just there to carry Obama's policies forward and reminding her base that Obama's legacy is much safer in her hands than Donald Trump's.

"She needs to say I'm with him" quipped Gloria Borger an analyst on CNN when asked what Clinton should say tomorrow night. For a woman with as formidable a resume as Hillary Clinton that's not going to be easy to do. After all Obama was the outsider who snuck in and took the nomination she thought would be hers in 2008. Tonight both had to put their egos aside for a greater good or against a greater evil.

Jim Young / Reuters
Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton greets U.S. President Barack Obama.

A Democrat should not have to struggle as much against a loudmouth like Donald Trump like Hillary Clinton is having to. Logically this race should not be close. But it is. And that's why she is leaning on Obama because without his coalition, she's toast. Obama understands that as well. As the hall erupted into boos at Donald Trump's name, Obama looked at the audience at the Democratic National Convention and said coolly and with impeccable Obama timing "Don't boo. Vote."

Whether that spirit, that fire will persist into the campaign is anyone's guess. Julian Assange is already releasing more DNC Wikileaks to queer the pitch for Clinton. And pundits will debate about whether Hillary Clinton was right to walk onto the stage with Barack Obama standing there, whether she risked being framed by him.

But it was an extraordinary moment of grace, even redemption, to see the two of them on stage together – a black man and a white woman, once rivals, together redefining the face of the American presidency forever.

This moment has been a long time coming for the United States of America.

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