Booker had a point, but Biden was hardly the only Democrat onstage to want it “both ways.” The candidates were all quick to praise Obama the man even as they seemed to be running against certain Obama policies—almost more than they were running against Trump. (Obama has avoided taking sides in the primary.)
Read: Waiting for Obama
On health care, for instance, the common denominator was dissatisfaction with the Affordable Care Act. Nearly every candidate agreed it did not go far enough or fast enough. They simply disagree on how fast to go and how best to get there in superseding it. When Senator Kamala Harris boasted that Kathleen Sebelius, an architect of the ACA and former secretary of health and human services, had endorsed her plan, Representative Tulsi Gabbard attacked Sebelius as a shill for the health-care industry. Even Senator Michael Bennet, staking out a moderate view, pressed for the public option for insurance that Obama rejected.
Biden also conceded that the ACA needs updating. “Obamacare is working,” he said, adding: “The way to build this and get to it immediately is to build on Obamacare. Go back and take back all the things that Trump took away and provide a public option.”
Later, the former vice president sought to use Obama as a shield against attacks from rivals on racial-equality issues, including criminal-justice reform and school integration.
“I find it fascinating, everybody is talking about how terrible I am on these issues,” Biden said. “Barack Obama knew exactly who I was. He had 10 lawyers do a background check and everything about me on civil rights and civil liberties and he chose me and he said it was the best decision he made. I’ll take his judgment.”
But Harris sought to weaponize Obama against Biden. Citing Biden’s praise for segregationist Democrats with whom he served early in his Senate career, Harris said, “Had those segregationists [had] their way, I would not be a member of the United States Senate, Cory Booker would not be a member of the United States Senate, and President Obama would not have been in a position to nominate him to the place he holds.”
Julián Castro, who served as secretary of housing and urban development under Obama, also praised his old boss. “We have had about 105 straight months of positive job growth, the longest streak in American history,” Castro said. “Eighty months was due to President Obama. Thank you, Barack Obama.”
The question to Biden about deportation—first asked by a moderator, but then pointedly brought up again by New York Mayor Bill de Blasio—was the closest that anyone onstage would get to criticizing Obama directly. Still, the candidates’ statements on health insurance and border security show that the critical consensus among Democratic presidential hopefuls has moved significantly to the left of Obama since he left office.