Obama Looms over the Primary in Invisible Ways

August 1, 2019 2:44 p.m.

Let me share a few more thoughts on last night’s debate. It was a bit jagged. Biden’s closer was cringey. But there’s a more salient point about the whole thing put together, and here I include both debates combined. There is a small but highly vocal minority of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents who see Barack Obama’s presidency as a failure. I don’t mean simply that he screwed up or wasn’t a good leader but more specifically that the policy premises and political strategies of his presidency were simply and fundamentally wrong. I have a friend/acquaintance. Over the years he’s drifted far away from my take on politics and that of many mainstream or middle of the road Democrats. He repeatedly presses the point to me that Obama’s presidency was a disaster and that Democrats can’t fix things, either substantively or politically, until they recognize that fact.

For the purposes of this post, whether my friend is right or not isn’t really relevant. What is relevant is that this is very, very much a minority position. Indeed, the vast majority of Democrats don’t feel that way at all. Some of that is partisan tribalism. Some of that may be that people tend to like Obama on a personal level, even if they disagree with his politics: the bar is admittedly pretty low these days. But Obama seems like, and I think is, a decent guy. But mostly this is because the great majority of Democrats think he did a good job and advanced a mix of policies they agree with.

I should add in brief that I think anyone who thinks seriously about policy will recognize a good number of mistakes, things that in retrospect should have been handled differently and some things that it was clear at the time should have been done differently. There are a lot of particulars about the management of the financial crisis and the home foreclosure crisis. There are basic strategic questions about Obamacare and the lack of a public option. There were years of trying to get Republicans to have good faith grand bargain negotiations about the federal debt and “entitlement reform” – something that was never going to happen and really shouldn’t have happened in the first place.

It is also worth noting that there’s basically no Obama administration official or anyone associated with it who says, “The ACA was awesome. Leave it exactly as is!” Even the most ‘centrist’ candidates are proposing fairly dramatic expansions of the federal role in health care provision, though some are more robust implementations of the ‘public option’ which the White House at least nominally (if perhaps not wholeheartedly) supported in 2009 and 2010.

Probably the biggest thing that Democrats think negatively about Obama is that he banked too much and for too long on Republican good faith. He wasn’t sufficiently partisan. He brought knives to gun fights and all that. But these views are largely tied to Democratic partisans. And they don’t always line up with differences on policy.

My particular take isn’t really the point. I put these critiques out there only to note that this isn’t a matter of hero worship or making Obamaism into some kind of doctrine. It’s simply that the great majority of Democrats think Obama had good policies, was a good guy and did a pretty good job. Polls leave little question about this basic verdict.

When Bernie Sanders got into the race in 2016 in many ways his campaign was premised on the idea that Obama had gotten most things wrong. Perhaps his presidency wasn’t a disaster, as my friend argues. But the premises of Sanders’ campaign was that Democrats needed to move in a dramatically different direction and that Obama’s policies and presidency were – while better than the GOP alternative – fundamentally misguided. Sanders was pretty straightforward about this before getting into the race. And he didn’t really hide it once he got in. But in the nature of things, since Obama was a popular incumbent, it wasn’t a point he emphasized during his campaign.

We also know that the entire country has moved left on a number of issues over the last decade (LGBTQ issues and marijuana legalization are just two examples). Democrats, meanwhile, have moved significantly to the left on a much broader range of issues. Some of this is an on-going trend. Some of it is in reaction to Trump, having his extremity lead to a reevaluation of practices that most Democrats didn’t focus much on. Maybe the best example of this is on immigration. As immigration advocates were saying very clearly at the time, the Obama administration deported lots and lots of people. It’s hard to see that in quite the same light after what we’ve all been exposed to about the mechanics of ICE, detention, deportation and everything that goes with it.

But with all of this, there’s a shift that has taken place that manages to be both all but invisible and yet very obvious. Part of it is Sanders deep imprint on the 2020 policy conversation – especially on health care and student debt but on other issues as well. Part of it is the wave of left activism that predates Trump but has intensified under his presidency. But taken together they’ve created a 2020 campaign policy conversation which at least implicitly gives a pretty negative verdict on Obama and his presidency. Perhaps not a disaster as my friend puts it but in many regards a mistake rather than something to build on. That, I think, is the root of Biden’s continuing strength, even with all the bobbles, flubs, the archaic policy histories and all the rest. It’s not just because he was Obama’s Vice President and people like Obama. It’s because the terms of the policy debate are in conflict – when forced together – with where the great majority of Democrats are, which is holding Obama and his presidency in very high regard. If your premise is that Obama sucked, even if that’s somewhat confined to thee footnotes, that’s going to create some real channel conflict if you’re running in an electorate which still largely thinks he was great.

This is also part of Warren’s strength versus Sanders. In policy terms, they are not at all far apart. But Warren presents her message as building upon Obama’s legacy, even if it’s in many ways a dramatic departure. Put differently, Sanders’ message invites or even requires you to recant your Obama enthusiasm to sign on with Sanders. If it even comes out in seemingly trivial ways in Sanders’ refusal to actually become a member of the Democratic party. Warren’s message and presentation makes no such requirement. That’s why Warren has purchase on a broader share of the Democratic electorate.

All of this means that Obama looms very large, even as he remains silent and in ways much of the pundit class – left, right and center – fails to grasp.

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