The Battle Over Barack Obama’s Legacy at the Democratic Debates
When the 2020 Presidential campaign began, earlier this year, with more than twenty Democratic candidates crossing the starting line, there was a widespread assumption that the contest would be dominated by the presence of Donald Trump, the most polarizing President in living memory. As far as the general election goes, that operating assumption may still turn out to be true. But, after two rounds of televised debates, the legacy of another President, Barack Obama, is already playing a central role in the primary phase of the election, albeit without his active participation—at least thus far.
In Wednesday’s debate, the second of the week, Obama was invoked at least seventeen times. His name was brought up seven times early on, during a lengthy discussion of health care, which has emerged as a key dividing line between the progressive Democrats, led by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, who want to replace the Affordable Care Act with a government-run single-payer system, and centrist Democrats, led by Joe Biden, who want to retain Obamacare and improve upon it.
With Sanders and Warren having appeared in Tuesday’s debate, where they vigorously defended Sanders’s Medicare for All proposal, it was left to Bill de Blasio and Kirsten Gillibrand, two core supporters of a single-payer system, to criticize various aspects of Obamacare, including high deductibles, onerous copayments, and the nefarious role played by profit-seeking insurance companies. Biden wasn’t having it. “My response is, Obamacare is working,” he said bluntly. “The way to build this, and get to it immediately, is to build on Obamacare.”
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Another contentious issue in the Democratic Party is immigration policy. Many progressives are critical of what the Obama Administration did in this area, particularly the policy of deporting hundreds of thousands of undocumented migrants. Some of the candidates on the stage, including Julián Castro and Cory Booker, have argued that crossing the border without permission should be treated as a civil violation rather than a criminal offense. When the discussion turned to this issue, Obama’s name came up another four times. De Blasio and Booker pressed Biden about whether he supported the mass deportations. He didn’t defend the deportation policy directly. He did point out that Obama tried his best to reach a comprehensive immigration agreement, and he also dismissed the idea of decriminalizing unauthorized border crossing, saying, “If you cross the border illegally, you should be able to be sent back. It’s a crime.”
Obama was also mentioned during the discussion of criminal-justice policy. This time, it was Biden himself who brought up his former boss’s name. De Blasio, on the attack again, asked him what he had done as Vice-President to spur the Justice Department to take action in the case of Eric Garner, an African-American resident of New York City who died in July, 2014, after a white police officer put him in a choke hold. “Everybody is talking about how terrible I am on these issues,” Biden said. “Barack Obama knew exactly who I was. He had ten lawyers do a background check on 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.”
If you believe the opinion polls, which showed Biden with a big lead going into this week’s debates, a plurality of Democratic voters are willing to take Obama’s word for it, too. Although the former Vice-President was by no means as fluent, or as in command of the details, as Senator Warren had been in Tuesday night’s debate, he was a good deal more engaged and lively than he had been in the first debate, in June. Dropping the pretense that he could get through the primary process without criticizing the other candidates, he mixed it up with Booker and Kamala Harris, his antagonist in the first debate, claiming that they both applied harsh criminal-justice policies in their positions as the mayor of Newark and the attorney general of California, respectively. Whatever the merit of these charges, they at least showed that Biden had done some homework and was capable of a counterattack.
Biden’s improved performance could well enable him to maintain his lead in the polls going into the fall. But, in a Democratic Party that has been energized and shifted to the left by social movements such as Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, and the resistance to Trump, many activists are eager to move beyond the policies of the Obama Administration. For all the former Vice-President’s recent efforts to fill out his policy platform with new proposals on health care, climate change, and criminal justice, he is effectively running to extend the Obama Administration to a third term.
This goes beyond his defense of Obama-era policies, such as the Affordable Care Act, the economic-stimulus package, and the effort to change federal sentencing guidelines. Echoing Obama in 2008, his basic message is that America is fundamentally a decent place, and, even now, there is more that unites it than divides it. “You know, we have a President, as everybody has acknowledged here, every day is ripping at the social fabric of this country, but no one man has the capacity to rip that apart,” he said in his opening statement on Wednesday. “It’s too strong. We’re too good.” Pointing to the variety of races and backgrounds of the people on stage, Biden went on, “Mr. President, this is America. And we are stronger and great because of this diversity, Mr. President, not in spite of it, Mr. President.”
The intellectual case of the Warren–Sanders wing of the Party is that Trump is the symptom, rather than the cause, of a deeper problem—a rigged political and economic system—that demands more far-reaching reforms than the ones that Obama introduced and that Biden is offering to extend. The division is philosophical, not personal. Warren, for her part, has largely avoided direct criticism of the Obama Administration, which she worked for, as a special assistant to the President and adviser to the Treasury Department, while setting up the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. But the scope and ambition that characterize her policy platform are a clear repudiation of the incrementalism that many progressives associate with Obama. As Warren put it on Tuesday night, she believes the Democrats need to be “the party of big structural change.”
With August upon us, the next televised showdown between the two sides and the two philosophies within the Democratic Party won’t take place for a while. The next debates are scheduled for September 12th and 13th. By that stage, some of the struggling contenders may have dropped out. The leading ones—including Biden, Sanders, and Warren—will almost certainly appear on the same debate stage. Then, the battle will truly be joined, and it will extend through February 3rd, when the Iowa Caucus will be held.
Who will win out? Will Obama himself get involved? Perhaps not, but his friend and former Attorney General, Eric Holder, has already joined the fray. On Twitter on Wednesday night, Holder wrote, “To my fellow Democrats. Be wary of attacking the Obama record. Build on it. Expand it. But there is little to be gained – for you or the party – by attacking a very successful and still popular Democratic President.”