During Wednesday evening’s Democratic debate, Joe Biden didn’t look so inevitable. Pressed on the Obama administration’s immigration record, and then on his personal support for an infamously regressive crime bill, he found himself defending Obama’s judgement nearly as often as he defended his own.
Asked by CNN moderator Don Lemon if he’d resume the Obama administration’s high deportation rates if he became president, Biden said no, and criticized another candidate onstage: Julián Castro, who served as the administration’s secretary of Housing and Urban Development and had previously explained his plan to decriminalize border crossings. “I found that Julián — excuse me — the secretary, we sat together in many meetings. I never heard him talk about any of this when he was the secretary,” Biden said, in an apparent reference to Castro’s proposal. Activists with Movimiento Cosecha, an immigration advocacy group, then interrupted the former vice-president, chanting “Three million deportations!” as they were led from the Fox Theater.
Castro landed on his feet. “First of all, Mr. Vice-President, it looks like one of us has learned the lessons of the past and one of us hasn’t,” he responded. He wasn’t the only candidate to criticize the Obama administration’s deportation rates, either. “I didn’t hear whether you tried to stop them or not, using your power, your influence in the White House,” Bill de Blasio, New York City’s absentee mayor, said to Biden.
The exchange displeased some pundits, and one other veteran of the Obama administration:
Obama’s defenders have one point right. The former president is popular with voters: A 2018 Gallup poll put his retrospective approval rating at 63 percent, and Biden probably owes his current place atop the primary polls in large part to his association with the former president. But this doesn’t mean that candidates erred by questioning Obama’s immigration record, or that Obama’s overall legacy ought to be off-limits to criticism. The moment Biden entered the race, he made sure that Obama’s legacy would come under scrutiny. And as Movimiento Cosecha’s activists made sure to remind everyone, that scrutiny is overdue.
Biden’s hecklers are correct. As FiveThirtyEight reported on Thursday, Obama deported over 3 million immigrants during his time in office, which led some activists to label him “the deporter in chief.” That’s the context for Lemon’s question, and it helps explain, too, why Castro responded to Biden the way he did. Even de Blasio, whose presence in the 2020 race continues to mystify, was basically right to point out Biden’s complicity in the deportations.
Set the validity of the criticism to the side for one moment. Even if we accept, for the sake of argument, that it’s a practical mistake for Democratic candidates to criticize the party’s popular former president, Biden is the one who put Obama’s legacy on trial. Biden runs on the promise of inertia; he tells voters that if they choose him, the nightmare will recede and we will all go back to the winsome days of beer summits and pragmatism. Biden presents the Obama presidency with a Vaseline lens, and hopes his own reputation looks better in this softer focus. The former vice-president can barely get through a campaign appearance, let alone a debate performance, without mentioning his friend, the former president. When Senator Cory Booker pressed Biden on his support for an infamously regressive crime bill, Biden raised a familiar shield. “Everybody is talking about how terrible I am on these issues,” he 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.” Convenient!
Biden also deploys Obama to defend his personal centrism. The case for Medicare for All, as Biden describes it, is an assault on one of the former president’s signature policies: the Affordable Care Act. When CNN’s Jake Tapper asked Biden to respond to de Blasio’s assertion that the American health-care system isn’t working, the former vice-president seemed to interpret the question as an attack on his old boss. “My response is, Obamacare is working. The way to build this and get to it immediately is to build on Obamacare,” he said. The only way to do that, apparently, is to pass his preferred policy — a public option, which, as he defined it onstage, would leave Americans facing co-pays of up to $1,000. At Vox, Dylan Scott speculates that Biden actually meant to say that he would cap deductibles, not co-pays, at $1,000, which seems likely. But it’s still true that Biden’s practical alternative wouldn’t cover everyone; as its name suggests, you have to choose a public option in order to use it. Biden can mention Obama all he wants, but while his plan would be an improvement on the status quo, it falls radically short of Medicare for All’s universal promises.
Now imagine a pleasant alternative reality, where candidate Biden did not pivot to Obama as often as he does. In our dream world, Biden’s campaign would still invite criticism of the Obama presidency. The vice-presidency was Biden’s most recent public office; for younger voters especially, there is no Biden without Obama. Candidates can’t run against Biden without running against some Obama policies. “Mr. Vice-President, you can’t have it both ways,” Booker told Biden, as the former vice-president tried to defend the administration’s record. “You invoke President Obama more than anybody in this campaign. You can’t do it when it’s convenient and then dodge it when it’s not.” Booker is right. If liberals are worried that Obama’s legacy won’t withstand the primary race, they should blame Biden. Really, though, they should sit back, and let the candidates criticize Obama in peace. Biden may like to think that Trump is an aberration, but his blinkered view of American political history isn’t one that other candidates can afford to share. There’s no question that Obama was superior to Trump, but God, what a standard. Democrats who want to be president can’t indulge a rosy view of the past. Obama’s presidency is fair game, and so is Biden’s role within it.