The Slatest

When Will Obama Stop Dividing Democrats by Attacking Obama’s Record?

Biden laughs and puts his hand on Obama's shoulder as Obama stands at a lectern.
Joe Biden and Barack Obama at the White House on Jan. 12, 2017. Olivier Douliery/Pool/Getty Images

An idea that has entered the political universe this week is that certain 2020 Democratic candidates are “attacking” Barack Obama by employing certain campaign themes and proposing certain policies, a trend that purportedly came to a head during Tuesday and Wednesday’s primary debates in Detroit. Here’s what former Obama administration Attorney General Eric Holder wrote after the debates, during which his ex-boss’s name came up in the context of free trade, the potential decriminalization of undocumented border crossing, and the Affordable Care Act:

And here’s Democratic Tennessee congressman turned pundit Harold Ford Jr.:

Politico rounded up similar quotes from other party operatives in a piece titled “Dems Seethe Over Criticism of Obama.”

Have 2020 presidential candidates begun engaging in suicidal attacks on Obama’s legacy by suggesting ambitious universal care policies, critiquing free trade’s effects on American workers, discussing the downsides of capitalism, and calling for a reduction in criminal prosecutions of undocumented immigrants?

Not really. For one, if you look at the transcripts, you find that almost none of the candidates who’ve taken those positions actually criticized Obama during the debates; in fact, Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Julián Castro only used the former president’s name to praise him or to suggest that his example supported the cases their campaigns are making. More importantly, though, none of those individuals nor any other 2020 candidate is doing or proposing anything that departs significantly from the path that Obama himself set for the Democratic Party.

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Let’s look at the issues one by one. Regarding border crossings, it’s true that the Obama administration prosecuted many deportees for criminal illegal entry under Section 1325 of the U.S. Code, which Castro has proposed eliminating, and that Cory Booker and Bill de Blasio suggested Wednesday that these deportations were regrettable. Someone else who seems to have thought that is Barack Obama, given that such prosecutions peaked in 2013, the year that the immigration reform bill he was attempting to secure collapsed in Congress, and that the administration’s subsequent immigration moves—like the expansion of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and the cancellation of the Secure Communities program—employed its executive discretion to reduce deportations by choosing not to prosecute every undocumented border-crosser.

Notably, the administration applied this discretion in particular to families who’d crossed the border with children, so that parents wouldn’t be kept in criminal facilities apart from their kids, a policy that the Trump administration reversed in order to enact its goal of large-scale family separation. Castro has said that preventing the possibility of family separation—which, to emphasize, Obama avoided by choosing to treat border-crossing as a civil violation—is the specific goal of his proposal to eliminate Section 1325, a proposal which would not preclude civil sanctions for border-crossing.

On the subject of free trade, Sanders, at Tuesday’s debate in Detroit, attacked the “corporations” that put “workers in this community out on the streets as they moved to low-wage countries.” Warren, meanwhile, called for international trade pacts “that are negotiated by American workers for American workers,” suggesting that the agreements that the United States has previously entered into were tilted too much toward the interests of managers and shareholders.

Sanders’ remarks could have come verbatim from Obama’s messaging in his 2012 campaign against Mitt Romney, whom Obama attacked relentlessly for having supervised the foreign “outsourcing” and “offshoring” of U.S. jobs during his time as a private equity executive. And while it’s true that Warren may specifically have been implying that Obama did an inadequate job of protecting American interests when he committed to the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement in 2015, another person who thinks that is … Joe Biden, who said the next night that as president he would “renegotiate” TPP with more input from “environmentalists” and “labor.”

In fact, we also know Obama thinks giving workers more power isn’t a terrible or legacy-disrespecting idea, and we know it for the same reason that we know he doesn’t think expanding on the Affordable Care Act via “Medicare for All” is a terrible idea either: because he said so in 2018. Look:

We know there are a lot of jobs young people aren’t getting a chance to occupy, or aren’t getting paid enough, or aren’t getting benefits like insurance. It’s harder for young people to save for a rainy day, let alone retirement. So Democrats aren’t just running on good old ideas like a higher minimum wage, but they’re running on new ideas like Medicare for All, giving workers seats on corporate boards, reversing the most egregious tax cuts to make sure college students graduate debt-free. 

Seems pretty straightforward!

Some lefty critics and activists do argue that Obama was a bad or seriously flawed president. Some of this year’s Democratic candidates have proposed policies and strategies that are not identical to the ones that he pursued. But those are two different groups of people. None of the leading candidates are, you know, actually attacking Obama’s judgment or legacy, because that would be a self-destructive way for a Democratic candidate to treat a popular Democratic president, and their overall messages all fit into party trends that Obama either endorsed in his second term (after it became clear Republicans in Congress were totally unwilling to negotiate legislation with him) or that he has since endorsed as appropriate responses to the fact that it’s not 2008 anymore.

One person who understood this dynamic as recently as two weeks ago, in fact, was Eric Holder, who is working with Obama on the National Democratic Redistricting Project to combat the gerrymandering that Republican state legislators ran wild with during and after Obama’s presidency. Here, in a Washington Post article by David Weigel, he laid out his reasoning:

Eric Holder, Obama’s first attorney general and one of very few administration veterans who came to the conference, said that the National Democratic Redistricting Project he runs grew out of a too-late admission that the party was being locked out because its voters weren’t turning up.

“There was a realization, certainly on my part, that we as Democrats needed to do more,” Holder said.

Someone “familiar with [Obama’s] thinking,” meanwhile, leaked to CBS after the debates that “the former president believes it’s appropriate to review and debate his legacy.” All of which would suggest that the invocation of Obama’s name this week might be motivated by something other than sincere concern for his feelings—something, perhaps, like the desire to maintain intraparty power by buttering up or advancing the interests of his former vice president’s front-running presidential campaign.