WASHINGTON — Barack Obama slashed US unemployment, protected child migrants and delivered health care to millions. But several 2020 candidates scorched the popular ex-president at their Democratic debate, a strategy that risks alienating voters as the party seeks to regain the White House.
With party divisions over ideology laid bare, progressive rivals to centrist frontrunner Joe Biden challenged the former vice president’s record — and by extension several Obama-era policies on deportation, coal, Afghanistan and health care.
Calling into question the legacy of perhaps the most revered living Democratic leader made for startling viewing at this week’s presidential debates, when 20 Democrats took the stage over two nights.
Despite the strategy being a clear play by rivals to undercut Biden, who has made his eight-year partnership with America’s first black president a centerpiece of his candidacy, it alarmed Obama loyalists concerned about repelling the very voters who Democrats need to motivate to the ballot box next year.
“To my fellow Democrats: Be wary of attacking the Obama record,” Eric Holder, Obama’s first attorney general, tweeted Thursday.
“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.”
As the nation’s first black leader, Obama was and remains hugely popular among African Americans.
But he was also deeply concerned about unnerving white middle-class voters, and so faced resentment for not pursuing policies bold enough to close the racial wealth gap.
David Axelrod, a chief Obama campaign strategist, nevertheless argued Thursday that it was a “perilous path” for Democrats to slam Biden’s Obama-era policies because that would require attacking Obama, who would win the nomination “in a walk” if he ran today.
Neera Tanden, who directed domestic policy for the Obama campaign and now heads the Center for American Progress think tank, was blunter, likening the approach to “political suicide.”
“The GOP didn’t attack (president Ronald) Reagan, they built him up for decades,” tweeted Tanden, referring to the devotion with which Republicans treat their political hero.
“Dem Candidates who attack Obama are wrong and terrible,” she added.
The Obama ambush signaled what has become increasingly clear in the era of Trump: the party that seeks to oust him from power has shifted decidedly leftward.
While Obama remains a favorite among Democratic progressives, many are keen not to merely expand the Affordable Care Act — popularly known as Obamacare — as Biden is, but replace it with a universal, government-run health care system.
Candidates like liberal senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, and even Obama’s own housing secretary Julian Castro, suggested Biden was stuck in the past for embracing some Obama policies rather than seeking bold new initiatives.
“It looks like one of us has learned the lessons of the past, and one of us hasn’t,” Castro memorably snapped at Biden, castigating the frontrunner for not splitting more forcefully from Obama’s deportation policy.
Warren expressed frustration with the current health system and touted a shift to a government-led “Medicare for All” plan, and blasted “a corrupt, rigged system” that began before Trump and “that has helped the wealthy and the well-connected, and kicked dirt in the faces of everyone else.”
The fusillade against Obama caught the attention of Trump, who gleefully told supporters at a rally Thursday that Democrats “spent more time attacking Barack Obama than they did attacking me, practically.”
Biden acknowledged on Thursday in Detroit: “I was a little surprised at how much the incoming was about Barack.”
But even Biden himself said he would not raise the deportation rate back to Obama-era levels. And he added that he had opposed Obama’s surge of troops in Afghanistan.
Biden could have rallied the party faithful with a more spirited defense of the Obama presidency from the debate stage.
But the lack of such full-throated acclamation suggests the balancing act that many candidates are navigating, especially those further to the left of the former president.
Candidates like Senator Kamala Harris, who clashed with Biden on health care during the debate, was quick to cheer Obama afterwards, perhaps to smooth over concerns that she was attacking the ex-president’s legacy.
“I have nothing but praise for president Obama,” Harris, who is black, told reporters, noting he was the only recent president to achieve major health reforms.
“My proposal is about taking it to the next step,” she said, adding that Obama put Americans “on the path where actually this next step is even possible.”