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Situation Room: Obama's With Her

MTV staffers discuss the question: So what should he do next?

When events warrant, the MTV News team gathers together in our virtual secure bunker to discuss the political news of the day. Tuesday's topic: President Obama has endorsed Hillary Clinton. What will/should his role in the campaign be going forward? Here with us today: Ezekiel Kweku, Carvell Wallace, Jamil Smith, and Jane Coaston.

Kweku: Let's state the obvious right up front: Obama is Hillary Clinton's greatest asset. If he were eligible to run for reelection again, he'd win in a landslide. The simple math is that if the people who would vote for Obama vote for Clinton, she'll win the election comfortably.

To that end, I think he should avoid getting dragged down in the mud as an anti-Trump surrogate — leave that to others, like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Warren is great at it, and Sanders will likely be way more happy (and effective) as an anti-Trump surrogate than as a pro-Clinton booster. Leave the contrast between him and Trump implicit. Obama should focus on helping Clinton make the case that she's been making all along: Clinton is the closest thing to a third Obama term you're gonna get.

Wallace: You wrestle with pigs, as the saying goes, you end up in mud. And Obama is enjoying a pretty unprecedented level of honor and cleanliness at this point, given that in every conceivable way he stands in stark relief to Trump. I would think that one of the primary concerns of the Democratic Party is all the "fuck the system" Bernie guys who are threatening to vote for Trump because America needs to burn or whatever. If Hillary is going to triumph, those guys will need to be reasonably convinced that a vote for her is not just a vote for "The System." It seems that part of Obama's usefulness is to remind us of how, particularly in his lame-duck years, his Pusha-T-at-the-White-House-Amazing-Grace years, he can still represent something of an anathema to politics as usual. He'll have to work a tricky balance between being the grown-up in the room and also the opposite of the grown-ups in the room, but tricky balances are kind of his thing.

Smith: I agree with Ezekiel that Obama will avoid being dragged into the mud with Trump. But his very presence will remind people of the mud at every turn, specifically Trump's birther conspiracies. To be honest, I'm shocked at how little play that's gotten thus far in 2016. Obama won't need to attack Trump; he is most incisive when he's ridiculing people, and he's already begun doing that with Trump. He started that five years ago at the White House Correspondents' Dinner, and he did it again at the same event this year.

Obama is a living affront to the ideas fueling Trump, and thus may be able to stay silent. He'll rally those constituencies — African-Americans, women, young people — that Clinton either needs the most or has trouble attracting. The president is beloved by all of those folks. For the white working class, Obama can remind them of the success of the auto bailout and talk in detail about the wonky stuff in Clinton's plans. And I'm sad to say that listening to him say it will sound a lot better to many men out here than it will when she says it (because misogyny). And should she or her campaign encounter crisis or scandal (short of her email investigation, of course), there's no smoother talker to help the public forgive her.

Coaston: There's also the fact that Trump has no idea how to talk about policy. Or religion. Or pretty much anything: Again and again, people have asked him to do so. And the GOP could not be less excited about Trump. Could. Not. Be. McConnell and Ryan both sound like they're describing a teenage boy who needs to raise his grades to get into community college when they talk about Trump. The only people who want to talk about Trump are racists or stupid, or both. When David Duke is considering himself a surrogate, you need to get yourself a new surrogate.

I have spent a lot of time researching the #NeverTrump movement and talking to conservatives, and all Donald Trump has done in the last month is reaffirm why a bunch of Republicans — and not just the David Frenches of the world — are trying to get off the Trump Train. His every argument undermines any reasoning for him to be president in the eyes of conservatives.

Smith: Yes, even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell admitted, frankly, that Trump doesn't know what he's talking about with regard to issues. But Republicans themselves have spent the last few decades eroding the public's trust and faith in government, so they shouldn't be surprised when that public stops caring to the point of nominating an unqualified oaf who speaks to their insecurities. But this is something that Clinton, Obama, and all of Clinton's surrogates need to account for, as well: This campaign can't just be about helping elect her; it must also be about rebuilding the public trust in government itself.

Neither the Clinton campaign nor Obama specifically can assume that everyone in their audience is interested in a functional bureaucracy. Many want to see it all torn down, even if carelessly so, for their own satisfaction (or entertainment). Some may not even be conservatives, but have the privilege or lack of empathy to withstand the catastrophes a Trump presidency would bring. How can Obama help Clinton reach those folks? I think he'll do his best to emphasize the value of her experience and her enthusiasm for policy, but I worry that may not move those who wouldn't mind watching the world burn. They may not be numerous enough to worry about in the end, but that doesn't mean the Clinton folks can blow it off.


VMAs 2017