California Sen. Kamala Harris’ attack on former Vice President Joe Biden for decades ago opposing forced school busing as a way to combat segregation understandably dominated coverage of Thursday’s debate among 10 of the Democratic presidential candidates.
But another moment revealed a different source of tension inside the Democratic Party, one that may play a significant role as the top contenders for its 2020 nomination seek to distinguish themselves from Biden: the legacy of the president he served as a loyal lieutenant, Barack Obama.
NBC News moderator José Diaz-Balart prefaced a question about whether Biden would deport immigrants whose only offense was arriving in the U.S. without papers by noting that the “Obama-Biden administration deported more than 3 million Americans.”
“President Obama I think did a heck of a job,” Biden shot back. “To compare him to what [President Donald Trump] is doing is absolutely … immoral.” Biden went on to say that undocumented immigrants who have not committed a crime would not be “the focus of deportation.”
Unlike Biden, Harris unequivocally committed to ruling out the deportation of individuals whose sole violation was entering the U.S. without documentation. And she did so by giving her version of how she broke with the Obama administration’s deportation policies during her tenure as California’s attorney general.
“On this issue, I disagreed with my president, because the policy was to allow deportation of people who by [the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency’s] own definition were non-criminals,” she said.
Harris’ comments were an exaggeration, at best. During a tumultuous fight over a “sanctuary state” law in California designed specifically to circumvent the Obama administration’s aggressive immigration policies, Harris was, to the lasting frustration of immigrants rights activists, unwilling to publicly advocate for the law.
Still, the divergent responses reflect one of the defining cleavages in the Democratic primary field between candidates like Harris willing to take on Obama’s policies, those like Biden who plan to restore them, and variations in between.
To be sure, candidates eager to break with Obama’s legacy must contend with his sky-high popularity among Democratic voters. A whopping 71% of Democrats said he was the best president of their lifetime in a July 2018 Pew poll. Obama had a 97% approval rating among Democrats in January 2018. And in a survey released in March of this year, the percentage of party members identifying themselves as “Obama Democrats” edged out those preferring the labels of liberal, moderate or conservative Democrat.
“We are so scared to criticize Obama because he is a beloved figure,” said Irene Lin, who served in his Obama administration’s Departments of Agriculture and Housing and Urban Development and worked for his 2012 re-election effort.
But Lin, who is not a fan of what she sees as Obama’s light-touch approach to corporate monopolies and big banks, suggested an alternative path: “You can separate the person from the policy. I love Barack Obama.”
Post-Partisanship Meets The ‘Political Revolution’
Broadly speaking, the Democratic presidential hopefuls’ approach to Obama and his legacy can be broken into three camps.
On one side, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has been the most vocal and persistent critic of the former president ― including while Obama was in office. In 2011, as Obama pursued a fiscal “grand bargain” with Republicans that would cut Social Security benefits, Sanders went on the warpath against him. In comments to progressive radio talk show host Thom Hartmann’s radio show, Sanders said millions of Americans were “deeply disappointed in the president” and could not “believe how weak he has been,” before suggesting that Obama merited a primary challenge in 2012 (that didn’t happen).
Sanders also has assailed Obama for his neglect of the Democratic Party at its grassroots levels. During an April 2018 event in Mississippi commemorating the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination, Sanders said that “the business model … of the Democratic Party for the last 15 years or so has been a failure.”
“People sometimes don’t see that because there was a charismatic individual named Barack Obama,” Sanders said to notable silence. “But behind that reality, over the last 10 years, Democrats have lost about 1,000 seats in state legislatures all across this country.”
Sanders’ divergence with Obama, however, is clearest not when he specifically mentions the former president but in framing his candidacy as a movement to overturn the “establishment politics and establishment economics” of both parties. The premise of his presidential campaigns, in 2016 and now again, is that money has corrupted politicians of all stripes, preventing the adoption of policies like Medicare for All and free college that a majority of the public supports.
Where Obama saw transcending partisanship as the key to progress, Sanders focuses on replacing corporate influence with an empowered electorate.
“Make no mistake about it, this struggle is not just about defeating Donald Trump,” Sanders declared at his campaign launch rally in Brooklyn in March. “This struggle is about taking on the incredibly powerful institutions that control the economic and political life of this country.”
Sanders has undeniably pushed the boundaries of discourse with the Democratic Party to the left. The clearest example of this is on health care. Harris and three other senators in the 2020 race ― Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Kristen Gillibrand of New York and Cory Booker of New Jersey ― are all co-sponsors of Sanders’ “Medicare for All” bill. And in a sign of the issue’s growing resonance, the percentage of voters who support a single-payer health care system rose from 40% in 2000 to 56% today, according to a survey by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.
A narrow majority of Democratic voters ― 54% ― want the next president to continue Obama’s policies, according to a HuffPost/YouGov poll released in May. Nearly one-third of these voters ― 31% ― want a president who is more liberal than Obama; among those 35 or younger, that figure jumps to 45%.
Sanders and other progressive contenders will try to tap into this rising demographic ― while also seeking to persuade the large swath of voters fond of Obama that policies that go well beyond what he tried to achieve aren’t necessarily a ding on his legacy.
The ‘Obama-Biden Democrat’
On the other side of the spectrum is Biden, who has cast himself as the next best thing to an Obama third term. Some of his biggest applause lines on the stump are when he waxes sentimental about “my friend Barack,” celebrating his partnership with an “incredible president.”
Unlike most of his rivals in the primary field, Biden insists that if Trump is denied re-election, history will regard his presidency as an “aberration,” rather than the culmination of structural forces roiling U.S. politics for decades beforehand.
Indeed, Biden is running on a return to the normalcy of the Obama era, which he casts as a period of moderate policies and bipartisanship. In a speech in Hampton, New Hampshire, in mid-May, Biden said he wanted to “restore the soul of the nation.”
Later on, he suggested that the country didn’t need to look that far back for inspiration. “Speaking of Barack, I think he didn’t get nearly the kind of credit ― he was one heck of a president, a man of integrity, honor, decency,” Biden said, drawing sustained applause.
“There’s a yearning that we can get past this intense partisan polarization and warfare that has intensified under Trump,” said Jim Kessler, policy chief of the business-friendly Democratic think tank Third Way and a former aide to Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.). “Not that the Obama time was not polarized ― it certainly was ― but there was an attempt to not be.”
But even Biden has made his peace with some more popular elements of the party’s leftward shift since Obama’s departure from the White House. He now supports a federal minimum wage of $15, which Obama never endorsed, and the creation of an option to buy into Medicare, a version of which Obama supported as a candidate before jettisoning it as president.
Biden was skeptical of pursuing what became one of the hallmarks of Obama’s tenure ― the 2010 passage of the Affordable Care Act ― but he now claims it as one of the proudest moments of his service in the Obama administration. In proposing ways to improve the ACA, including the creation of a Medicare buy-in, Biden nonetheless admits that the law failed to provide universal coverage or provide affordable care for millions of people who have insurance.
“We’ve got to finish the job on health care,” Biden said in a speech to Democrats in Manchester in mid-May.
That kind of incremental vision is in keeping with Obama’s approach, in Kessler’s view. “The Obama legacy was never meant to be a static thing,” he said. “Democrats are always moving forward and trying to be right for the particular time we’re in.”
‘The Last Democratic President Of The Reagan Era’
In the space between the two, other candidates like Harris, Booker, Warren and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas have found ways to question the outcomes of the Obama era ― without being seen to attack Obama or his legacy.
South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg has perhaps been the most direct among them when he told The New York Times podcast “The Argument” that “being to the left of Obama doesn’t make you extremely progressive. Remember he was the last Democratic president of the Reagan era,” constrained by political dynamics that no longer apply.
Warren also has not shied away from drawing policy differences with Obama, while refraining from criticizing him explicitly. Her positioning is striking, however, since it offers a stark contrast with much of her political career.
From the moment she was appointed as Congress’ overseer of the bank bailout funds in 2009, Warren made clear she thought the Obama administration was too cozy with Wall Street. As a senator during Obama’s second term, she adhered to that stance as she sank the nomination of investment banker Antonio Weiss for a top Treasury job and joined with Sanders in opposing the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal.
But when HuffPost asked Warren which of Obama’s policy decisions she blamed for contributing to the Democrats’ historic losses of federal and state legislative seats under his watch, she declined to directly answer. Without naming Obama or any of his policies though, she managed to issue a broad indictment of Democratic messaging in recent years.
“For far too long, we have not gotten out and made the case for investing not in the top, but investing in the rest of America. We make that case, I believe we’re going to win in 2020, and that’s up and down” the ballot, she said.
Warren’s approach has won her praise from unexpected quarters. Asked whether criticism he directs at Sanders for veering too way to the left of Obama extended to Warren, Third Way’s Kessler, who blasted her in the pages of The Wall Street Journal in December 2013, replied, “She’s running an excellent campaign.”
Other candidates have laid out ambitious environmental plans that go well beyond anything Obama proposed. O’Rourke would place a moratorium on oil and gas drilling on federal lands ― drilling that Obama encouraged. And Washington Gov. Jay Inslee wants to launch a massive green infrastructure program, far more ambitious than the carbon pricing and regulatory approach Obama favored.
Some candidates have already tacitly acknowledged that shaking Biden free from his lead in the polls might require gently taking on the Obama legacy that helps buoy him. Without mentioning either Obama or Biden, Booker has added a section to his stump speech that asks voters to look beyond a restoration of the pre-Trump status quo.
“If you want somebody to run for president and the only thing you want is to beat Donald Trump — well, I can beat Donald Trump, but I’m telling you that that’s the wrong measure,” he told a crowd in Berlin, New Hampshire, earlier this month.
“We all should be demanding so much more, because the problems of the (state’s rural) north country, the problems of Newark, New Jersey ― so many of our challenges were going on well before Donald Trump was president of the United States,” he said.
But Third Way’s Kessler argues that creating distance from Obama is a failed political strategy. “If you’re a Democrat running for president and you’re running from the Obama legacy, you’re doomed,” he said. “There is no space for it in the Democratic primary.”
He may have a point. In conversations with over two dozen New Hampshire voters in mid-May, all but a few Democrats were effusive in their praise for the former face of the party.
“Nobody’s perfect. He was great,” said Dick Farrell, a retired teacher attending a town hall Booker conducted in Berlin. Obama “knew how to listen to people and truly listen and formulate his ideas off some common sense that he heard.”
Even those who conceded that they wished for more progress on some issues during his presidency largely attributed the disappointments to Republican obstruction.
“He had a tough row to hoe because he had no cooperation from the Senate,” said George Embley, a retired engineer attending a recent town hall Gillibrand conducted in Warner, New Hampshire.
“Mitch McConnell!” interjected Sally, his wife, referring to the Senate GOP leader from Kentucky who from Day One made clear his objective was to thwart Obama.
Vivian Dolkart, a retired psychiatric nurse also at the Gillibrand event, mentioned the Senate’s refusal to even grant Obama Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland a hearing. Obama “was damned no matter what he did,” she said. “If he had not extended an olive branch, he would have been criticized for that.”
So for Biden’s rivals, a safer way to take on the “Obama-Biden” juggernaut may be to divorce the former vice president from his more popular former boss. And Biden’s decades-long record as a lawmaker is replete with controversial votes and stances that Obama had no part in.
Even before Harris challenged Biden on the busing issue at last week’s debate, Democratic contenders had signaled that his pre-White House record is fair game. Over the Memorial Day weekend, Booker called the Biden-authored 1994 crime bill “shameful.” Sanders has repeatedly sought to contrast his opposition to the Iraq War and various international trade agreements with Biden’s support for them.
Warren is likely to reignite a debate over a 2005 bill Biden backed that made it harder for households to declare bankruptcy. She and Biden clashed bitterly over the legislation, with Warren ― then an activist law professor ― arguing vehemently against it.
Shortly after Biden announced his presidential candidacy in April, Warren told reporters who asked about the dispute, “Joe Biden was on the side of the credit card companies.”
By contrast, Obama, who had arrived in the Senate just a few months earlier, was one of only 25 senators to vote against the legislation.