The next Obama: Democrats grappling with the legacy of the former president

Obama may have left office almost three years ago, but his presence – and the legacy he left of two successful presidential campaigns – threatens the 2020 race, with many Democrats looking to return to his old job. by attempting to claim portions of the Obama mantle.

How to approach Obama’s eight-year term has become a complicated question for Democratic presidential candidates. While at times some of them have apparently tried to outdo Obama with their respect for the last president, there have been flashes of contention among the candidates over the legacy of the former president.

The second Democratic debate in July was the culmination of anti-Obama sentiment in the 2020 race, with a slew of candidates questioning the former president’s immigration and health care policies. The arguments have been pragmatism against progressivism and show how some party liberals believe the former president did not do enough during his tenure.

Then there are Democrats like Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan, who ended his campaign and backed Joe Biden this month, and recently warned Democrats to focus too narrowly on Obama by suggesting that comparing the candidates to the former president denies that “each election is unique”.

Walking a tightrope to embrace a popular former president and give your own vision of a positive outlook for the future is tricky, “said Jen Psaki, Obama’s former communications director at the White House. But” Obama remains the most popular Democrat today, so for any candidate running on building and building beyond his legacy is smart. “

The internal debate is proof that a party is understanding how three years of withdrawal from power – and the rise of President Donald Trump, a singularly different figure from the former president – changed the Democratic Party . While the lines from the second debate helped candidates score points on Biden, there was a swift comeback from some Democratic activists and agents, further proof of Obama’s staunch popularity within the Democratic Party.

Obama, for his part, urged candidates to find their own balance between recognizing what his administration has accomplished and building beyond its track record, telling donors at a high-priced conference earlier this month that ‘he hoped the candidates would build beyond what he accomplished because “that’s the bottom line.”

“I have built on the process of other people,” he said last week. “And I tried to take over and run a little further, then I expect people to take over from me and then I want them to run it a little further.”

But Obama’s advice also came with a warning. The former president told candidates to “pay attention to where voters really are,” warning them to go so far in certain policies that they would no longer be in tune with voters.

“Even though we are pushing the boundaries and being bold in our vision, we must also be rooted in reality,” Obama said, adding that candidates shouldn’t be thinking “if you go this far and automatically think that people will follow because ‘look how bold and creative I am.’ “

Advisors to some of the moderate candidates applauded the comments, seeing them as an accusation by Liberal leaders like Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.

Obama’s decision to make a rare comment on the 2020 race further complicated his position in the primary. Warren, for example, dodged a question about the comments entirely, choosing to praise the former president instead.

Obama’s outspokenness is also likely to continue, as the former president is expected to stick to a busy schedule this week and in the months to come. Obama gave the opening speech at Greenbuild’s annual international conference on Wednesday in Atlanta, the same day as the debate, and will then travel to San Francisco, where he will lead a leading fundraiser for the Democratic National Committee and will deliver remarks.

Who can claim Obama’s mantle?

Biden is – by far – the candidate who most clearly claims Obama’s mantle. He was the president’s number two, backed him for eight years and mentioned him often during the election campaign, regularly using what the duo accomplished in power to explain why voters should support him in 2020.

And conversations with his supporters show just how important his time with Obama – and the fact that the former president worked with him for eight years – is important to his run for president.

Karen Macias, 30-year-old Nevada voter who was born in Mexico but raised in Las Vegas, leans in favor of Biden /

“That’s a big part of the reason.… I guess because he’s worked with him in the past he’s going to do a lot of things like him,” said Macias, who has lived in Las Vegas since 2000. “C ‘is the main reason I would vote for him. “

This was echoed by Reverend Jerome Lewis, the 56-year-old reverend of a black Christian church in Las Vegas.

“I think Obama saw something in him where he said if I’m not there you can do it,” Lewis said. “That’s what I like about him, that Obama have faith in him. Of all the candidates he could have chosen, he chose Biden.”

But what Biden actually has connections to the former president, the 76-year-old Democrat lacks the kind of novelty and excitement that propelled Obama into 2008.

If Biden is the candidate most closely linked to Obama, Patrick is the new candidate closest to the former president.

Obama and Patrick are close friends, and the former Massachusetts governor called the former president for advice on his late 2020 candidacy. Patrick’s first gubernatorial campaign in 2006 was led by political consultants David Axelrod and David Plouffe, who would later go to work for Obama, and Patrick’s slogan – “Together We Can” – was seen as a precursor to Obama’s message of hope in 2008.

More than that, however, the two share similar personal stories. Obama, throughout his career, has been linked to the South Side of Chicago and his presidential library is expected to be built in the neighborhood he moved to after college. But Patrick’s ties to the region run even deeper: He was born and raised on the South Side of Chicago and only left when he received a scholarship to attend the prestigious Milton Academy in Massachusetts.

Despite that, Patrick said on Sunday that he believed the moment called for something different from what Obama had proposed.

“I think President Obama was a great president. He was a friend and was a friend long before he took public office. And I have supported him from the start,” said Patrick. “But I also think the timing demands something different than what our next president is and will get from me.”

Where Biden and Patrick have real ties to Obama, South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg appears to be the candidate voters most often compare to the former president.

The mayor, 37, is young, running a historic candidacy and running against standard politics, three things Obama had about his opponents in 2008. Buttigieg’s campaign relied on Obama’s comparisons, and his supporters often draw these parallels.

“It’s intelligence, it’s composure, it’s the ability to be presidential,” said Terri Hale, an activist from Iowa who supported Obama in 2008 and now supports Buttigieg. “The energy and the excitement and the positivity and the hope is what I feel at events for Pete. And I haven’t felt that since Barack Obama.”

Unlike the country’s first black president, however, Buttigieg’s existential struggle as a candidate is his inability to win black voters, which didn’t bother Obama but could sink the mayor’s candidacy given the importance voters vlack for the Democratic Party.

Those close to Obama have watched with skepticism as candidates struggle with the legacy of the former president, a source close to Obama telling CNN that “the irony of trying to be the next Obama is that Obama had this incredible sense of self, he knew who he was and had a level of authenticity that voters responded to. “

Axelrod, Obama’s longtime senior adviser, has said that “seizing Obama’s mantle and record is fundamental” for Biden, while others “claim that the mind is, at a minimum, a checkbox “because of Obama’s disproportionate popularity within the party.

“Underneath,” said Axelrod, “there is the same tension that existed when Obama first stepped forward, between those who advocate for radical and provocative change and those who advocate for change by forging consensus. demanded by a large and diverse democracy. “

CNN’s Jeff Zeleny contributed to this report.

Kevin E. Boling

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