What the Obama economy means for Hillary Clinton

(CNN)President Barack Obama might give Hillary Clinton the best gift any sitting president can offer their potential successor: a strong economy.

For the first time since Obama took office more than six years ago, significantly more Americans say the national economy is "good" rather than "poor," while six in 10 people are optimistic that the economy will be in good shape a year from now, according to the latest CNN/ORC poll.
The recent upturn in the economic recovery, marked by a 5.5% unemployment rate — the lowest level since May of 2008 -- is a welcome and long-awaited development for the second-term president, who assumed office at the height of the financial crisis.
It also comes as Clinton has hit the campaign trail as a presidential candidate for the second time. A broadly favorable view of the Obama economy could be a potentially powerful tool for the former secretary of state as she seeks to convince voters that the country will be better off with another Democratic president than a Republican in the White House.
    Clinton and her Democratic colleagues will want to leave themselves maneuvering room in case the recovery hits unexpected road bumps — there are still 18 months left until Election Day, after all.
    But in light of CNN's newest poll and a recent spate of positive economic data, analysts widely predict that come 2016, the Obama recovery is poised to be one of his party's biggest assets.
    "I do think we will continue to see economic growth not just through the rest of this year but through the rest of 2016. There aren't those imbalances out there that would raise concerns about a potential recession any time soon," said Gus Faucher, a senior economist with PNC. "Whoever the Democratic nominee is, he or she will be running on the message of: the economy is getting better and let's continue with those policies."
    Recent labor market data offer a clear demonstration of just how far the recovery has come since the president took office in 2009.
    In 2012, GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney repeatedly slammed Obama for lackluster growth and made the economy the central pillar of his campaign platform. Two years earlier, Republicans campaigned on the mantra of, "Where are the jobs?"
    At the end of 2012, the unemployment rate still lingered around 8%. By November 2012, employment growth had averaged around 150,000 per month that year.
    Now, those numbers read quite differently.
    In March, the unemployment rate was 5.5%, and over the last year, the economy has added an average of 269,000 jobs per month, according to the Labor Department.
    Consumer confidence has also come a long way — the University of Michigan's survey of consumers this month showed that consumer optimism was at the second highest level since 2007.
    "The economic question in 2016 isn't just, is the economy getting better or not, but whose policy agenda seems more consistent with keeping it that way?" said Jared Bernstein, former economic adviser to Vice President Joe Biden.
    In a meeting with local elected officials in New Hampshire Tuesday, Clinton said she believes more voters are starting to appreciate the president's policy decisions.
    "She said people are coming around, understanding that what President Obama has done is good. A lot of what he has done is worthwhile," state Rep. Geoffrey Hirsch of Bradford told CNN after an hour-long meeting with Clinton.
    Hirsch added: "I know Obama's ties or coattails were kind of destructive in the midterms, especially here in New Hampshire, but I think she senses that people are coming around."
    Still, in her first remarks as a declared candidate, Clinton has been careful not to oversell the broader economic progress by cautioning that the middle class needs more of a boost.
    "Americans have fought their way back from tough economic times, but the deck is still stacked in favor of those at the top," Clinton said in her announcement video.
    The restrained rhetoric in part reflects several weak spots that continue to irk economists -- chief among them, sluggish wage growth.
    Stephen Moore, an economic fellow at the Heritage Foundation who has been meeting with a range of 2016 Republican candidates, said weak wage growth is one of the clearest signs of why it's still premature for Democrats to fully embrace the Obama economy.
    "The Republican line has to be, where's the pay raise, Mr. President?" Moore said. "You keep talking about middle class economics but the middle class has really been hammered over the last six years under this recovery."