Obama's active role for Hillary Clinton is a break from past elections

President Obama on Thursday afternoon offered a full-throated endorsement of Hillary Clinton's campaign, saying he's excited to hit the campaign trail with her next week and in the months ahead.

He'll be one of the few sitting presidents in recent history to play an active role in his successor's election bid.

On the whole, there's a reason why sitting presidents often steer clear of the campaign trail for their successors: it's rare for one party to hold the White House for longer than eight years, and a party's nominee doesn't want to be saddled with a surrogate who has lagging approval ratings and inspires voter fatigue. In recent years, incumbent presidents have proven to be more a liability than an asset--or at least that's what their successors' campaigns seemed to think.

Clinton, however, is very clearly running as Mr. Obama's successor: in stump speeches across the country, she pitches a Clinton presidency as building upon the progress he's made in areas like healthcare and immigration. On the campaign trail, she frequently tells the story of how Mr. Obama asked her to be his secretary of state and the reasons she decided to accept.

That's a bit easier given Mr. Obama's approval ratings, which have rebounded over the last several months. The latest CBS News/New York Times poll had him at 50 percent approval, compared with 43 percent disapproval--one year ago, the numbers were practically flipped. Then, 42 percent approved of President Obama, while 48 percent disapproved.

In a video released Thursday afternoon, Mr. Obama congratulated Clinton on securing the delegates necessary to win the Democratic nomination, praising her as the most qualified choice for president. Shortly afterward, Clinton's campaign announced that the pair will appear together next Wednesday at a campaign event in Green Bay, Wis.

"I don't think there's ever been someone so qualified to hold this office," the president said. "I'm with her. I'm fired up. And I cannot wait to get out there and campaign for Hillary."

The feeling appears to be mutual. In an interview with Bloomberg released following Mr. Obama's endorsement on Thursday, Clinton had high praise for her once-rival, saying they have become "true friends" over the last eight years.

"It just means so much to have a strong, substantive endorsement from the president. Obviously I value his opinion a great deal personally," Clinton said. "It's just such a treat because over the years of knowing each other, we've gone from fierce competitors to true friends."

She continued, noting that Mr. Obama is able to "uniquely" talk about the necessary qualities for the country's next president. "I want to be out there with him and have a chance to campaign with him," she said. "The president has said he thought his job was to remind the American people what a serious responsibility the presidency was. We're choosing a president and commander-in-chief and he's uniquely able to talk to the American people about the knowledge, experience and temperament that the presidency requires."

If the president becomes a frequent fixture on the campaign trail, it will be a break from past elections in which the incumbent president is not running again.

In 2008, President George W. Bush endorsed Republican nominee John McCain in March once it was clear McCain had clinched the nomination and helped him fundraise, but did not actively campaign with McCain during the general election. Like Clinton and Mr. Obama, Bush and McCain were also former primary rivals (in 2000). It had taken some time for them to get past the acrimony of the 2000 campaign, and they eventually did, but the bigger problem still was Bush's historically low approval ratings.

"Whatever he wants me to do, I want him to win," Bush said that March. Still, he added: "It's not about me. I've done my bit."

In a year when voters desperately wanted change--especially as it related to the unpopular Iraq War--Bush said McCain would stay the course on national security issues. "He's not gonna change when it comes to taking on the enemy ... he's gonna be a president who will bring determination to defeat an enemy." he said.

McCain said that he hoped Bush would join him on the trail. "I appreciate his endorsement, and I appreciate his service to our country," he said.

Democrats worked hard to paint a McCain presidency as Bush's "third term;" the further into the campaign he got, especially as the economy collapsed in the fall of 2008, the more McCain kept his distance from Bush. Bush did raise money for McCain starting that May, but he stayed off the campaign trail.

Ultimately, Bush left office with his approval rating at an abysmal 22 percent, according to a CBS News/New York Times poll at the time.

The same dynamic was at play when Al Gore was Democrats' nominee in 2000, though for very different reasons. President Bill Clinton, term-limited at the time, was certainly popular: he left office with a 68 percent approval rating.

But Gore was launching his bid for the presidency just as Clinton was dealing with the fallout of the Monica Lewinsky scandal--and even though Gore was Clinton's sitting vice president, he took care to distance himself from President Clinton on the campaign trail. The pair reportedly spoke only a handful of times during the summer and fall of 2000 as the campaign intensified, the New York Times reported at the time.

And Clinton did not appear at joint public events with Gore that fall. "'This is something Gore is going to do on his own,'' Chris Lehane, Gore's press secretary, told the Times that October.

  • Emily Schultheis

    Emily Schultheis is a reporter/editor for CBS News Digital.