Democratic voters are still enamored with former President Barack Obama, but the party’s 2020 presidential hopefuls are running away from his policies as fast as they can.
Although many voters say they are searching for an Obama-esque standard-bearer to run against President Trump, the candidates say the former president was a failure on immigration, health care and trade.
Even former Vice President Joseph R. Biden tossed overboard the man he called his “brother from another mother.” He griped during the Democratic presidential debate Wednesday that Obamacare needs changes, the trade deal they negotiated falls short and too many illegal immigrants were deported.
“Absolutely not,” he said when pressed on whether he would continue Obama administration deportation policies, which resulted in 400,000 removals a year, a figure that outraged liberal activists.
Sen. Cory A. Booker of New Jersey trashed the former president’s immigration legacy.
Deflecting criticism of his own administration, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio faulted the Obama Justice Department’s handling of the 2014 killing of Eric Garner, a black man who died in a chokehold by city police during his arrest for selling cigarettes on the street.
“I was a little surprised about how much incoming there was about Barack,” he said at a campaign stop at a Detroit diner. “I’m proud of having served with him. I’m proud of the job he did. I don’t think there is anything he has to apologize for.”
Mr. Biden didn’t reverse course on where he distanced himself from the country’s first black president.
However, he defended the Obama immigration record, citing the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals deportation amnesty granted to illegal immigrant “Dreamers.” He said the number of deportations was a poor yardstick for the administration’s accomplishments.
“The idea it’s somehow comparable to what this guy’s doing is bizarre,” he said.
Zach Friend, a Democratic strategist who worked on Mr. Obama’s 2008 campaign, said it was a mistake to mess with the former president, whose popularity among Democrats has been as high as 97% in recent polls.
“It seems counterproductive to focus on concerns with his legacy rather than on President Trump’s current policies,” he said. “Ultimately, the differences in shades of blue between these candidates pale in comparison to the differences between these candidates and the policies of the current administration. The focus should be united on how we will make the lives better for everyday Americans and how to keep this president a one-term president.”
The Rev. Wendell Anthony, president of the Detroit NAACP, agreed that the focus should be on Mr. Trump “because his record is destroying the nation and who we are.”
“They spent a lot of time talking about the past, rather than the present or future,” he said. “You don’t want to cannibalize the whole team so no woman or no man is left standing.”
If there was any doubt about the continuing appeal of Mr. Obama, Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez put it to rest with his opening remarks at the debate.
“Am I the only one who misses Barack Obama in this room?” Mr. Perez called out to a roar of applause from the crowd at the Fox Theater.
The moment could have given pause to the 10 candidates about to take the stage and sow doubts about Mr. Obama’s legacy.
Criticizing Mr. Obama’s time in the White House is a dangerous undertaking for any of the 2020 hopefuls because they risk alienating the party’s voters who romanticize those not-so-long-ago days.
Obama voters were irked by the attacks on the former president’s policies at the debates Tuesday and Wednesday.
“Democrats are not supposed to sling at another Democrat because they are giving President Trumpammunition to use against them in the general,” said Mr. Demonique, who is backing Mr. Biden because of his ties to Mr. Obama.
Mr. Demonique moved to the U.S. from Liberia more than 30 years ago. He said he got his U.S. citizenship so he could vote for Mr. Obama.
He was especially distraught that Sen. Bernard Sanders of Vermont and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts want to replace Obamacare with “Medicare for All” government-run health care.
“That is like attacking Obamacare. If you want to take away current insurance, that is scratching everything and starting all over,” he said.
“I wouldn’t put a lot of distance between [Mr. Biden] and President Obama on anything,” Mr. Link said. “I think he is smart to embrace Obama, and why not embrace the whole thing? Obama is still incredibly popular and respected among Democrats — particularly Democratic primary voters.”
He said Mr. Biden’s words against the former president may have been “in the heat of the moment” of the debate and noted that he tried to repair any damage afterward.
“I would hold on tight to Barack Obama if I were Joe Biden,” Mr. Link said.
Still, the Democratic Party has moved dramatically to the left since Mr. Obama was in office.
Some of the strongest challengers to Mr. Biden, who remains the front-runner, are far-left champions Mr. Sanders and Ms. Warren.
Another powerful contender, Ms. Harris, is more moderate but also is embracing parts of the far-left agenda, including a variation of Medicare for All.
Darrell West, vice president and director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution, said it was an effective strategy for Mr. Biden to tap into Mr. Obama’s popularity with the party’s voters.
“That may well be Biden’s best claim to the nomination. However, in the current political environment, it will be hard to defend Obama’s record on deportation and trade,” he said. “The party has moved well to the left on those issues, and no one is going to accept those policies as the right ones at the current time.”
Yes, the 2009–16 Obama fails the 2020 would-be Obamas because he was insufficiently liberal. Ponder that one.
Jonah Goldberg adds:
For a while there, no modern figure was supposed to be as consequential. It’s difficult to describe the hype in the early days of the Obama era. Time, Newsweek, and countless deep thinkers cast him as a 21st-century Lincoln or FDR. Some literally saw a messianic figure — “The One,” in Oprah Winfrey’s words. Self-help guru Deepak Chopra said Obama represented a “quantum leap in American consciousness.”
George Lucas speculated that he might even be a Jedi.
It was a global phenomenon. In a move that embarrassed Obama himself, the Nobel Committee gave him a Peace Prize on spec — i.e., in anticipation of what they were sure he would do. A leading Danish newspaper editorialized: “Obama is, of course, greater than Jesus.”
Obama himself set his sights lower; he wanted to be the Democrats’ Ronald Reagan. And for a time, it seemed to many that he’d succeeded. As late as April of 2017, CNN’s Fareed Zakaria said, “Obama aspired to be a transformational president, like Reagan. At this point, it’s fair to say that he has succeeded.”
But this proved to be a mirage. As National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru observed in 2017, Obama left office almost as popular as Reagan, but when Reagan departed for California, he left his party stronger than when he found it, holding more elected offices at the federal and state level. And the public felt better about the direction of the country as well. By the time Obama left office, nearly 1,000 Democrats had lost their jobs, and the GOP was better positioned than at any time since the 1920s.
Some analysts plausibly argue that these statistics are unfairly inflated because they’re pegged to the large coattails Obama had in 2008. Even so, it demonstrates that Obama failed by his own standard insofar as transformational presidents expand and entrench their parties the way FDR and Reagan did.
In fairness, Reagan and FDR had an advantage that Obama did not: They were succeeded by allies. Since so much of what presidents do can be reversed by the next president, particularly when done by executive order — as Obama did for most of his presidency — it takes a new, friendly replacement to solidify a presidential legacy. Donald Trump reversed many of Obama’s policies with a stroke of a pen (just as a Democratic successor would do to Trump’s).
Still, it was hard to appreciate the extent of Obama’s incredible shrinking presidency until the recent Democratic presidential debates. Much of the post-debate punditry has focused on the fight between the handful of moderates, led by Obama’s vice president, Joe Biden, and the far more numerous left-wingers, who attacked numerous Obama policies from the left, most notably his signature Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare, but also his immigration and economic policies.
Attacks on the Reagan legacy on the right are lamentably increasing among some intellectuals on the right, but we’ve never seen anything remotely like this in a GOP presidential debate. Attacking Reagan is still risky for a Republican politician, and he left office over three decades ago.
The Democrats’ migration to the left is not merely a story of ideological or intellectual transformation, though it is that; it’s also the direct consequence of Obama’s presidency. However we’re supposed to measure the total number of Democratic losses under Obama, the important part isn’t the quantity of the loss, but the quality.
The ranks of moderate and conservative Democrats were disproportionately hollowed out under Obama, while Democrats in deep-blue liberal areas were emboldened to move even further left. (Trump has had a similar effect on the right, decimating the moderate wing of the GOP while intensifying the partisanship of conservatives in safe red areas.)
The big-name Democrats who survived Obama are more concerned by primary challenges to their left than by general-election threats from their right. As a result, they have a hard time talking to audiences that don’t already agree with them on the big questions.
Those ultra-liberal politicians — Warren, Sanders, et al. — now drive the party to such a degree that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is seen as a moderating force on the Democrats. The moderates in the debates are like refugees of a wing of a party that has shrunk to a feather. Only Biden stands as a formidable figure, because of his time at Obama’s side.
And now even that is turning into a liability, at least on the debate stage.