Barack Obama's last campaign

Story highlights

  • CNN/ORC poll published Friday found Obama's approval rating at 51%
  • Obama's popularity could help Hillary Clinton on the campaign trail

Washington (CNN)President Barack Obama's popularity is growing just in time for him to wage the final campaign of his political life.

A CNN/ORC poll published Friday found Obama's approval rating at 51%. He's now been in positive territory since February -- the longest period since shortly after his re-election in 2012. And 49% of those polled say things in the country are going very or fairly well -- up 7% since January.
    The late-term boost in popularity is good news for a President whose achievements have often come at a heavy political price in a deeply partisan age. But it could be even better news for Hillary Clinton, who is preparing for a fierce general election clash with Donald Trump and may need to deploy a popular Obama to the campaign trail to drive up Democratic enthusiasm.
    Though Obama yet hasn't formally endorsed Clinton, who remains in a primary race against Bernie Sanders, he was eager Friday to take on Trump and preview his arguments for the fall.
    "We are in serious times and this is a really serious job," Obama said in his first news conference since Trump became the presumptive Republican nominee this week. "This is not entertainment. This is not a reality show. This is a contest for the presidency of the United States."
    His remarks reflect the fact that though many Democrats and Republicans believe Clinton is favored to win given Trump's high negatives with key demographics, lack of political experience and controversial rhetoric, the White House will take nothing for granted.
    "Our view is that he will campaign and he will be out there like the nominee is having the race of their life," said a senior administration official on condition of anonymity to discuss internal thinking. "That is how you have to run in presidential elections."
    Hitting the stump for his chosen successor -- always a nostalgic moment for a President leaving office -- Obama will draw contrasts with the gains made in his presidency and what he believes Republicans, under Trump, would represent.

    'Holes in his shoes'

    "There is no question that the President will be rolling up his sleeves and be out there quite a bit on the campaign trail in the summer and the fall," said White House Communications Director Jen Psaki. "He has already done quite a bit of fundraising. I think people can expect that he will get some holes in his shoes from the amount of campaigning he will do."
    Obama will likely spend time courting voters who twice backed his White House campaigns -- millennials, Latinos and African Americans -- all of whom Clinton needs in November. The President and his wife, Michelle, could be powerful advocates for Clinton in big cities in key swing states, like Cleveland, Miami and Denver, where Trump must cut into the Democratic vote to win the election.
    "President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama are the two most popular elected and non-elected officials amongst minorities, particularly African Americans," said Tharon Johnson, a Georgia Democratic strategist who ran Obama's southern re-election campaign in 2012 and now backs Clinton. "President Obama will be able to speak to the minority community with not just rhetoric like Trump but with concrete successes like (Obamacare), the growth in the economy etc that will ignite that demographic," Johnson said.
    Johnson said Obama would also be an asset in uniting Democrats after a primary that Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders plans to pursue until the convention in July.
    "Mobilizing the Sanders wing of that party is something a sitting president like Obama who is popular with the base can probably do better than anyone," Johnson said.
    Given his improving approval ratings, Obama also plans to venture into more unexpected territory, White House aides said, including suburban areas and midwestern states. Such an itinerary could draw him into direct conflict with Trump, who will brandish a fiercely protectionist trade agenda in areas that he says have been hurt by economic competitors like China and the economy under Obama.

    Obama's potential to help

    There is every sign Clinton understands Obama's potential to help her. Although she has repeatedly said she's not running for Obama's third term -- or that of her husband -- she has praised and defended the President in front of Democratic audiences.
    And having been on the inside when then-Vice President Al Gore spurned President Bill Clinton's offers of help in 2000, fearing fallout from his boss's personal dramas could be damaging, Clinton has special insight on the president-versus-candidate dynamic.
    But Obama's gaze is not just on the future that will unfold when he is an ex-politician. He has personal political business to get done as well.
    In some ways, Obama is a unique lame duck president as he is in significantly better positions than many of the term-limited presidents who preceded him. In 1988, Ronald Reagan was popular, but much of his political energy had been punctured by the Iran-Contra affair. And in his late 70s, he had none of the vigor that the younger Obama still retains -- despite his increasingly snowy hair.
    Bill Clinton, though personally popular when he left office, was still overshadowed politically by the impeachment drama and President George W. Bush's second term approval sank under the Iraq war, Hurricane Katrina and the economic meltdown and never recovered.
    Spared such trials, these are heady and poignant times in the White House as the President basks in a political boost in the twilight of his term.
    "In my final year, my approval ratings keep going up. The last time I was this high, I was trying to decide on my major," Obama joked at the White House Correspondents' Association annual dinner last week.

    The unexpected

    Still, if there is one lesson of the Obama presidency, it is that the unexpected is usually just around the corner. A sudden game-changing event -- be it a terror attack, global crisis or an unexpected economic slump -- could change the political weather.
    So enacting final political goals will require sustained engagement by Obama and could eventually rest on factors outside his control.
    His push for Congress to embrace the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal is facing hostile headwinds, for instance, as global trade gets a hammering on the campaign trail.
    The TPP is one area of contention between Obama and Clinton, who is facing attacks on her past support for such pacts from Sanders and Trump, and has come out against the deal -- even though she helped initiate it when she was secretary of state. The Washington Post reported Friday that she has now also come out against the idea of passing the TPP during a lame duck session of Congress -- apparently the White House's sole remaining hope of getting the deal ratified before Obama leaves office.
    Still, the White House is not giving up, though recognizes its a tough ask.
    "The political calculation I would acknowledge is complicated," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said on Thursday.
    The White House is also holding out hope for progress with Congress on criminal justice reform and is committed to a long-term effort to get Obama's Supreme Court pick Merrick Garland confirmed. Both initiatives also may have to wait for a lame duck session when political conditions have changed. Often below the radar, Obama has also weighed in with new executive actions -- for instance on regulations that affect working Americans.
    And he remains determined to close Guantanamo Bay — to honor one of the first promises of his presidency.
    The President is also expected to embark on four more foreign trips this year and is believed to be considering a major economic speech. The economy is one area where Clinton needs Obama's late luck to endure.
    On the one hand, jobs growth has been robust for years. The government reported Friday that 160,000 new jobs were added in April -- a far cry from the beginning of the administration when the economy was shedding 800,000 positions a month.

    Warning signs

    But there are some ominous warning signs and any prolonged dip in economic performance could make Obama a significantly less potent weapon for Clinton and bolster Trump's arguments that the nation's economic engine is badly misfiring.
    Friday's jobs report, for instance, was significantly below expectations. A tepid growth performance -- 0.5 % GDP growth in the first quarter -- and sluggish manufacturing numbers, are also provoking anxiety.
    Perhaps with this in mind, Obama is taking steps to defend his economic record as part of another current White House political push -- shaping his legacy while he can still deploy the power of the presidency. In an interview with the New York Times published in April, Obama, increasingly willing to tout his own economic accomplishments, said the current state of the jobs market, stock market and and the banking industry would have beyond "the wildest expectations" of aides who came to work with "clenched" stomachs in 2009.
    But he also appeared preoccupied by what was left undone.
    "I can probably tick off three or four common-sense things we could have done where we'd be growing a percentage or two faster each year ... and those things keep me up at night sometimes," Obama said.
    The interview was one of several extended examinations of Obama's legacy in which the White House has cooperated.
    Earlier this year, Obama granted extended interviews to Atlantic correspondent Jeffrey Goldberg, mounting a stiff defense of his foreign policy that irked some allies in the Middle East and Europe.
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    Obama is expected to make more personal attempts to define the narrative arc of his administration in coming months, likely including his farewell at the July's Democratic National Convention -- the place where his political star was born in 2004. It's all stirring nostalgia for aides who were at his side way back at the beginning of his presidential journey four years later.
    "We are very cognizant of the ticking clock and the fact that we have a very limited amount of time left," Psaki said.