With the Iowa caucuses a week away, both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton are doing what they can to embrace President Obama and lay claim to his mantle. Unsurprisingly, they’re seeking to connect with different elements of his legacy, and the ways in which those attempts are connecting, and with whom, seem to point toward a split between the Democratic base and Democratic officials—an establishment vs. voter split to echo the Republican Party’s own.
One major rationale for Clinton’s candidacy was that she could consolidate the gains of the Obama presidency, and perhaps build on them in some way—recognizing the difficulty of making further aggressive policy shifts after so many of them during the Obama years, particularly with a Republican House all but guaranteed for the foreseeable future. Because of her time serving as Obama’s secretary of state, Clinton had a special claim on the Obama legacy. This appeal was predicated in part on the widespread frustration among Democratic mandarins—elected officials, strategists, staffers—with Obama.
Variations on the complaint have been popping up for years: Obama doesn’t negotiate effectively. Obama has unrealistic ideas about how to make policy. Obama doesn’t understand how to work the levers of power. Obama has abandoned the state-level Democratic parties. Obama isn’t willing to get to know members of Congress in either party. Obama isn’t hawkish enough. Perhaps most importantly, Obama failed to deliver on the promise of a new era of comity in Washington. All of the idealism and lofty promises that carried Obama to victory in 2008 had become maddening to his fellow Democrats once he was in office; now they would be ready to come home to Clinton, who was the candidate to solve each of these problem. Clinton’s backers understood why voters had flocked to Obama in 2008, but they felt confident that in 2016, they’d come home to Clinton, who could both solidify Obama’s accomplishments and rectify his shortcomings.