The Democratic Candidates Are Deeply Ambivalent About Obama

The candidates may praise the 44th president, but from health care to immigration, they have real policy differences with him.

Alessandro Garofalo / Reuters

Did you know that Joe Biden was Barack Obama’s vice president? In case anyone watching the Democratic debate somehow forgot that fact, Biden repeatedly invoked Obama, and has elsewhere taken to referring to the “Obama-Biden administration” and “Obama-Biden Democrats.” But during tonight’s Democratic debate in Detroit, the ambivalence about the 44th president lurking within his party broke through. Although Democrats still love Obama, they now question central parts of his legacy.

The clearest indication of this ambivalence came during an exchange about immigration. Biden had spent the first segment of the debate touting the Affordable Care Act and his role in creating it. Now he was facing tough questions about Obama’s record of deportations. Biden tried to squirm out of it, but he was eventually forced to answer. “I was vice president,” he said. “I’m not the president. I keep my recommendation in private.”

That was too much for Senator Cory Booker, who seemed to have been lying in wait for just this moment.

“You can’t have it both ways,” Booker said, turning to Biden. “You invoke President Obama more than anybody in this campaign. You can’t do it when it’s convenient and dodge it when it’s not.”

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.)

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.

History, and party policy, pass every former president by eventually. Bill Clinton might be willing to commiserate—if he’s gotten over Obama criticizing him in just the same way in 2008. But it’s surprising to see Obama almost discarded as a party asset, given that it’s been less than three years since he left office, and that he remains very popular—63 percent of Americans approve of him, Gallup found in 2018. More to the point, almost nine in 10 Democrats approve of Obama.

The Democratic Party is moving leftward, and there’s a vocal faction in the primary in favor of more progressive policies. But it’s probably not a coincidence that the candidate who is tying himself most closely to the former president—Joe Biden—continues to lead the polls. To borrow a phrase, it may be that Obama is still likable enough.