Is President Obama helping or hurting Hillary Clinton?

Story highlights

  • Zelizer: Obama is asserting himself in his final year
  • Zelizer: Obama's active presence, including a forceful State of the Union, could make things more difficult for Clinton or Sanders

Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and a New America fellow. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" and "The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society." The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)It looks like President Obama will not be sitting quietly during his final year in office. He began 2016 with a detailed plan to use executive power to place tighter restrictions on guns sales, which he defended against critics in a town hall on CNN.

During his State of the Union address on Tuesday we will likely hear about an ambitious agenda for the coming year. If Congress won't act on guns, he is going to work around it. This isn't all. Coming off the historic Paris deal on climate change, the President is seeking to make further progress on this issue. He is also searching for diplomatic and military breakthroughs in the quest for international stability.
The president hopes to join the pantheon of recent presidents, such as Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, who recorded significant achievements on their way out of their second term in office. Reagan finished work on the ratification of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces agreement with the Soviet Union in 1988. Clinton protected vast amounts of land from development and strengthened trade agreements with Africa and China. Bush dramatically altered U.S. policy in Iraq with the surge and moved the Troubled Asset Relief Program through Congress in response to the financial meltdown.

    Fighting mood

    Most Democrats are pleased to see that the President will finish his term in a fighting mood. They hope he uses this final year to build his legacy and, through executive power, make some progress on ideas that have languished on Capitol Hill. If the President is putting key issues onto the agenda and forcing debate on legislative proposals, he can energize Democratic voters to come out and make sure a member of the same party follows him in the White House during the next four years.
    But an active Obama can also pose challenges to Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, the leading Democratic contenders. This was clear with the kind of responses he heard at CNN's town hall meeting about gun control. Sometimes when presidents are bold in their final year they can create problems that candidates of the same party have to carefully navigate through on the campaign trail and that the opposition party can exploit to its own advantage.

    Eisenhower and Nixon

    In 1960, Vice President Richard Nixon, a veteran Cold Warrior, found himself out-hawked by Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kennedy. Rather than fading into the night, President Dwight Eisenhower had gone after the Democratic Congress in his final years in office, pushing them to balance the budget and calling for steep cuts in all kinds of spending, including defense.
    Eisenhower, a war hero, believed Congress spent extraordinary amounts of money on unnecessary weapons systems that benefited military contractors rather than national security. Kennedy (and all the Democratic nominees) used this against Vice President Nixon, warning how the administration had endangered the country through spending cuts and how a "missile gap" had emerged with the Soviets as a result of Eisenhower's policies.
    Kennedy said that during the Eisenhower years, "Our security has declined more rapidly than over any comparable period in our history. ..." Even though the missile gap turned out to be fictional, Nixon never had a good response to Kennedy's broader attacks.

    Johnson and Humphrey

    Vietnam was a huge mess for Vice President Hubert Humphrey's candidacy for the White House in 1968. After announcing that he would not run for re-election in March 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson devoted much of his time to trying to make progress in Vietnam. The administration stood firm with its policies, insisting they were on the right path.
    Humphrey moved back and forth in an effort to find the middle ground, refusing to totally break with the administration's policies, and thus angering many in the anti-war movement who backed Eugene McCarthy, but also making promises for a bombing halt, which angered Democrats who were still loyal to Johnson. The President announced a bombing halt on October 31, but by that point the damage to Humphrey was done. Humphrey's constant effort to stay in the gray, to avoid clear declarative statements, gave a huge opening for Nixon, who this time made firm promises about peace, law and order and a new approach to government.

    Reagan and Bush 41

    Ronald Reagan focused most of his energy in 1988 on making certain the Senate ratified the INF Treaty with the Soviet Union. Many conservatives blasted the agreement as a disaster. They claimed Reagan had been tricked by the Kremlin hard-liners into thinking Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was a friend.
    In the end, Vice President George H.W. Bush stuck with the President and made sure the Senate ratified the agreement, which it did by huge margins.
    Bush also responded, though, by running an extraordinarily hawkish campaign for president, featuring a famous ad showing a helmeted Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis looking feeble as he sat in a tank. The ad pretended it was still the height of the Cold War. Even while Reagan was talking about peace, Bush found the need to stress a more muscular vision.

    Clinton and Gore

    President Bill Clinton never sat still after the Senate voted it would not convict him of high crimes and misdemeanors even though the Republican House had voted to impeach him. Clinton spent his final year using executive power to make progress on the protection of land as well as reaching free trade agreements that had always been key to his centrist vision of the economy.
    For his vice president and would-be successor, Al Gore, simply the fact that Clinton refused to sit on the sidelines caused problems. Even though Clinton was hugely popular, Gore worried all the stories about his sex life made him a figure to avoid.
    Gore never allowed Clinton to get close to him and had trouble figuring out how to position himself with regard to the administration of which he was a part. It is true he won the popular vote and lost in the contested election over the Electoral College. But had he used Clinton, Florida might never have been a question.
    So, as Obama remains on center stage he needs to be cognizant of what impact this will have on Democratic candidates. Since Obama is less popular than Clinton or Reagan at this point in his presidency, his decision to be proactive could be even more problematic politically.
    Generally, the Obama White House has not been great when it comes to considering the political implications of its policies for the rest of the party, something that has caused considerable frustration for Democrats on the Hill.
    This is doubly important this time for the President himself, because the fate of all of his policies will depend in large part on whether there is a Democrat in the White House to push back against what will likely be a Republican Congress. His use of executive power makes this particularly important, because the next president can easily reverse many of these gains.
    None of this is to say President Obama should avoid the big issues, but he must do so in ways that give the Democratic nominee space to handle Republican attacks and to think carefully about which unfinished business would be beneficial to his party.