Hillary Clinton could have seen her presidential candidacy doomed this morning.
Instead, the legal cloud stalking her campaign lifted just in time for her first joint appearance on the stump with President Obama, who delivered a powerful testimonial to the character of his former political rival turned Secretary of State.
Even by the standards of this tumultuous election, Tuesday’s events represented a rapid, dramatic turnaround for the presumptive Democratic nominee.
It started at 11 a.m. with the surprise announcement by FBI Director James Comey that his agency is declining to recommend criminal charges for Clinton’s use of a private email server. That all but eliminated an existential threat looming over Clinton’s bid since before she formally announced last year.
Yet in leading up to that headline-maker, Comey still blasted Clinton and her team for what he called “extremely careless” treatment of classified information. And he presented evidence that they misled reporters about their handling of the federal probe. Comey’s unsparing characterization provided ample fodder for Republicans aiming to keep the matter front and center as a campaign issue. That will continue to sting, since Clinton suffers from a major trust deficit, with 69 percent calling her “record of being dishonest” a serious concern, according to a recent NBC/ Wall Street Journal poll.
Given her morning — a massive relief shadowed by an asterisk nearly as big — Clinton couldn’t have asked for a better afternoon. Taking the stage with President Obama in Charlotte, NC, for the first time this election, Clinton heaped praise on his leadership while making the case for herself as the best agent to extend his administration’s work.
But Obama provided the fireworks — and a potent counterpoint to Comey’s criticism from just hours earlier. Having had a “front row seat to her judgement and her toughness” as Secretary of State, Obama said, “My faith in Hillary Clinton has always been rewarded.” He described her as a “great Secretary of State,” a view he noted was widely shared by both the public and pundit class until she jumped back into electoral politics. And Obama said his assessment of her performance benefited from seeing “what happened when the cameras weren’t on.” That characterological reference matters for Clinton because it’s coming from a president whose own approval ratings are approaching a three-year high, with a majority of Americans calling him trustworthy.
Wrapping up his speech, Obama nodded to high negative marks dogging Clinton. “Let me blunt,” he said. “Hillary’s got her share of critics.” But he chalked it up to her experience: “That’s what happens when you’re somebody who’s actually in the arena. That’s what happens when you fight for what you believe in.” Too often in choosing a president, Obama said, voters opt for an unproven quantity just because it’s new, a phenomenon he acknowledged boosted his own bid. But people don’t apply that logic to judging airline pilots or surgeons, Obama argued, and they shouldn’t in the voting booth.
No doubt that’s a line the president will continue to press on the trail as he makes the case for Clinton to succeed him. Republicans will note it wasn’t experience that compelled Clinton to establish an off-the-books email system. But it suits the Democratic argument that Clinton earned her scars, while Donald Trump is dangerously unqualified for the office.