Barack Obama left office two years ago, but he’s the most popular Democratic politician in America, with a stature that is likely only to grow more. Obama also made some big mistakes, which some Democratic presidential candidates are, rather gently, starting to point out. The response to this has been nothing short of insane.
In this week’s Democratic presidential debates, the critique of Obama’s record on healthcare and immigration turned from implicit to explicit. Just moments after a group of protesters interrupted the debate by shouting “Three million deportations!” at Biden, Julián Castro—who served as Obama’s HUD secretary—told the former vice president that “one of us learned the lessons of the past” on immigration. Later, Sen. Cory Booker implied Obama wasn’t a perfect president, slamming Biden for incessantly bringing up his relationship with Obama and saying, “You can’t have it both ways.”
In response, Biden has covered himself in Obama’s shadow, suggesting that any criticism of Obama is off-limits. He has been joined by a wide swath of Democrats.
Here is a sampling, courtesy of a Politico piece on Thursday evening:
“Stay away from Barack Obama,” advised Steve Elmendorf, a well-known Democratic lobbyist who worked on John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign.
“The GOP didn’t attack Reagan, they built him up for decades,” tweeted Neera Tanden, CEO and president of the liberal think tank Center for American Progress and the Obama campaign’s domestic policy director. “Dem Candidates who attack Obama are wrong and terrible. Obama wasn’t perfect, but come on people, next to Trump, he kind of is.”
“I think attacking President Obama is bad policy and bad politics,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said.
Henry Crespo, former chair of the Democratic Black Caucus of Florida, who watched the debate with about a dozen fellow black Democratic officials and operatives, cold-called a POLITICO reporter outraged with what he saw transpire on the debate stage Tuesday and the following day, when Harris and Booker appeared to him to be insufficiently supportive of Obama.“Obama is an icon in our community. And they’re attacking his legacy Obamacare? And Joe Biden is the one defending it?” he asked.“We were sitting here watching this and wondering: ‘What the hell are you doing? What is wrong with our party?’ It’s like they want to lose,” Crespo said, adding that Democrats like him resent Harris and Booker for attacking Biden’s record on race.
These criticisms have been joined by a flurry of op-eds both defending Obama and mocking the critiques of him from the left. Writing in the New York Times, writer Timothy Egan cloaked a screed against progressive policy like Medicare for All in a column that was ostensibly supposed to be a column about how good Obama is—apparently unaware that Obama, the man himself and not just the avatar for progressivism that Egan created in his head, has said that Medicare for All is a good idea.
“And rather than effectively prosecute the easy case against the worst president ever, the Democrats went after one of the best: Barack Obama,” Egan wrote, before making a sharp right turn directly into the pages of the National Review: “This is a winning strategy only in a world where everyone gets a trophy, which is to say, much of the younger Democratic base.”
Where, even, to begin? The worst aspects of the Obama presidency have been covered at length at this point—the failure to prosecute the big banks; the drone warfare; the deportations; the many shortcomings of the healthcare reform which ultimately resulted in Obamacare; the Trans-Pacific Partnership; the austerity. There’s an argument to be made that Obama’s hands were tied on these things by the inherent constraints of the office, not to mention the challenges he faced as the first black man to hold that office. That’s a separate argument from whether or not these things are good.
So let’s start with the obvious: it’s August 2019, not October 2020. In the past five weeks, we’ve watched two rounds of debates featuring 20 candidates. With the exception of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, dozens of them have spent the entire campaign vying for the right and center lanes in the Democratic Party, while still trying to wade just far enough into the left lane to excite the party’s progressive base. This is made all the more complicated by the fact that most of these people agree with each other at least 80 or 90 percent of the time.
All of this is to say that the differences, by default, are going to be shouted through a megaphone. Julián Castro’s campaign is built around having a more humane immigration system. By virtue of that, he is going to emphasize his differences on immigration not with Donald Trump—the baseline for every Democrat—but with other Democrats, including Biden and yes, Obama.
The second aspect of this, which should be equally clear but is bewilderingly not to top Democrats and their cheerleaders in the punditry, is that this is how progress works. The idea that a president who was elected in 2008 should remain the standard for progressivism in the Democratic Party is completely absurd. Obama’s stated goal with Obamacare was to provide universal healthcare to everyone in America; that goal has failed, since 30 million people are still uninsured. Should we just give up on that because Obama and the Democratic Congress of his first two years tried their best? Are drone strikes fine because Obama did them?
Of course not. And not only would Obama the candidate disagree that the previous Democratic president wasn’t fair game for criticism—Obama spent much of the 2008 Democratic primary running against the record of both Hillary and Bill Clinton, who at the time was still highly popular in the Democratic Party—but Obama the post-president appears to not be really fazed by any of this. A source told CBS News following the debate that Obama didn’t mind a “fact-based” critique of his record, which is all anyone has done in the race.
The argument against Democrats and the left criticizing and distancing themselves from Obama is an argument against evolution and progress. Practically speaking, it’s also an argument against the left, which is the real crux of the argument that Obama’s defenders are making.
The underlying reason why the Obama criticism stings so much is that it equally serves as an indictment of these defenders, and of their politics over the past decade. For most of these people, a return to “normal”—life under Obama, or even George W. Bush—is all that’s needed, because life was perfectly fine for them under these presidents. As others within the Democratic Party have slowly but surely started to realize, it wasn’t fine for everyone, and so the party is now having a thorough debate about how to deal with that. And you cannot have that conversation without talking about the last president of the United States.