The optics in the run-up to the midterms are startling: A two-term Democratic president is being treated like an outcast by his own party while his would-be Democratic successor is being treated like a rock star as she traverses the country on behalf of Democratic candidates.

A beleaguered President Obama, buffeted by criticism of his handling of everything from ISIS to Ebola and stuck with an approval rating in the low 40s, is living the curse of a second-term president. Just as former President George W. Bush became an albatross to his party, Obama has become a painful liability to many Democratic politicians who are struggling to hang onto their jobs.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, by contrast, is offering her party a new beginning. Democrats are hoping that by the time the former first lady formally mounts a bid for the White House, many of the Obama-era controversies over the IRS targeting of conservative groups, a botched rollout of ObamaCare, unspeakable breaches in Secret Service security for the White House and a halting foreign policy — will somehow all be in the rear view mirror.

Politics is a brutal business, and even a president isn't immune to jarring insults and slights from malcontents or desperate characters within in his own party. With few Senate Democrats battling for reelection willing to be seen or even associated with Obama at this point, the president has been reduced to skulking around the country, giving speeches and raising money before a shrinking number of welcoming group.

As The Washington Post's Dana Milbank recently observed, Obama is "President Pariah," with vulnerable Democratic candidates ducking for cover from him. Indeed, three Democratic senators have run ads distancing themselves from him, and Alison Lundergan Grimes, the Democratic Senate candidate in Kentucky, repeatedly has refused to say whether she voted for Obama. With his approval rating even lower in red battleground states, the once towering figure on the national scene has become persona non grata in many Democratic quarters.

Obama appeared in his home town of Chicago recently to campaign for Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn. He also stumped for Maryland gubernatorial candidate Anthony Brown in Prince George's County, Maryland, where 65 percent of the voters are African American.

As Milbank noted in his column, "With about five minutes to go in his 25-minute speech, about the time Obama said, 'I'm just telling you what you already know,' people began to trickle out."

Meanwhile, Democrats hungry for change can't get enough of Hillary as she rides the crest of her popularity across the country raising money for the party and whetting Democrats' appetites for her to run in 2016.

She recently gave a "spirited call to arms" in San Francisco, according to The Post, boiling down her economic message for the midterm elections to a simple question: "Who's on your side?" Clinton was the lead speaker at a Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee event that was dubbed the "Ultimate Women's Power Luncheon." That event drew about 800 guests and raised $1.4 million.

Later that evening, Clinton was the main draw for a star-studded Hollywood gala hosted by DreamWorks Animation chief executive Jeffrey Katzenberg and legendary director Steven Spielberg.

Clinton has also campaigned in Kentucky, Nevada, Michigan, New York, and elsewhere. Alison Grimes, who is waging an uphill challenge to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), has repeatedly referred to Kentucky as "Clinton country."

Clinton recently rallied in Colorado with Democratic Sen. Mark Udall, who is fighting for his political life against Republican challenger Cory Gardner, a House member. Clinton's campaign dance card will be filled in the final days of the campaign with strategic appearances in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, North Carolina, and New Hampshire.

These are the best of times for Clinton, who is rapidly becoming the titular head of her party. While she and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, are experienced in weathering punishing criticism from the right, she has yet to face the searing Republican attacks on her record that are sure to follow if she formally tosses her hat in the ring for president.

For Obama, meanwhile, these are difficult and melancholy days, after coping with the Great Recession, a difficult economic recovery, two wars in the Middle East (with another one on his watch in Syria), numerous problems with the Affordable Care Act, and so on. In recent months, Obama invariably has used his public and private appearances to recite a litany of his achievements — including a sharp decline in the unemployment rate, economic growth, and a major decline in the deficit.

But when the Democrats hold their 2016 national convention to nominate Clinton as their standard-bearer, party organizers are not likely to want to give their outgoing president much of a prime time role — regardless of those achievements.

Obama appeared to sense this harsh reality in his remarks to donors in Chicago recently as he sounded a note of frustration. "There's a sense that things simply don't work in Washington, and Congress in particular seems to be completely gridlocked," he said.

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