vision 2020

Does It Make Sense for Democratic Candidates to Criticize Obama?

Still quite popular, it turns out. Photo: Mark Makela/Getty Images

Intelligencer staffers Benjamin Hart, Jonathan Chait, and Ed Kilgore discuss whether it’s wise for presidential contenders to go after the guy who left office back in 2017.

Ben: Ready to chat?

Ed: Sure.

Jon: One minute …

Ed: Jon’s color guard is performing. Always happens before his chats.

Ben: (95-year-old man slowly shuffles out of view.)

Jon: And now … the participants in today’s chat … from Michigan, 47 years old, an opinion journalist living in Washington …

Ed: Jooooooon Chait!

Jon: Time for a commercial break.

Ed: Haha.

Ben: Last night, the Democratic candidates talked quite a bit about the urgency of defeating President Trump next year. But there was also some criticism directed at Barack Obama’s administration, if not the man himself. This is largely because Joe Biden, the front-runner, has hugged himself closely to Obama’s legacy. Did you find these attacks to be fair game? And is it weird to focus on the flaws of a president that the vast majority of Democrats look back on fondly?

Ed: The dirty little not-so-secret of this cycle is how many of the party’s dominant progressive activists and opinion leaders really dislike Obama and his legacy.

Jon: It’s certainly fair, but it is weird, given that 95 percent of Democrats approve of Obama, there’s an awful lot of competition for the 5 percent. (Most of that 5 percent is Democrats to Obama’s right.)

Ed: Candidates don’t usually talk about it, since it’s a deadly practice among African-American voters in particular.

Jon: It’s a symptom of the disconnect between the progressive intelligentsia and the Democratic electorate.

Ed: Literally took the words out of my mouth. I can remember, of course, arguing with Glenn Greenwald in early 2012 about his claim that Obama was going to get a robust primary challenge.

It’s been a long-standing issue. Activist disgruntlement with Obama began in 2009 (if not earlier) when it became an article of faith that he had dishonestly campaigned as a progressive and then governed like a damn Clintonian New Democrat.

Ben: Would we be having this conversation, though, if Joe Biden weren’t in the race? How much of this is just various people’s attempts to dent him in whatever semi-desperate way possible?

Ed: It’s worth mentioning that HRC, who had her own very clear identity, was implicitly the Obama candidate in 2016. Even she felt the need to keep her distance from him now and then, as on trade policy (as has Biden, actually).

Jon: I think we would — progressive activists were criticizing Obama throughout, as Ed says, and really have criticized every Democratic president since (and including) FDR.

Ed: The thing is, of course, that Biden has lots of vulnerabilities in his record that have nothing to do with Obama. Additionally, some of his critics really need to use the material I’ve written about showing that Team Obama didn’t worry about Biden’s “baggage” in 2008 because they thought he was too old to run for the presidency on his own (in 2016)! That’s certainly relevant to Biden’s “Obama picked me” defense for everything questionable about his record.

Jon: I think the attacks on Obama from candidates are overstated — there were a couple, but it wasn’t a theme. I think reporters are sort of picking up the Twitter conversation and reading that into the debate a little. Castro and de Blasio did — that’s all, though. Granted, seems crazy for them to do so.

Ed: It was mostly on immigration and trade, two areas where the party really has moved away from Obama.

Jon: No, on trade Democrats are moving left!

Ed: That’s what I’m saying. Wait a minute, by “left” you mean toward free trade? I don’t think so.

Jon: For example, this.

Ben: A question that was raised among our co-workers earlier: Why aren’t more candidates — or any candidates, really — trying to claim the niche of
“I love Obama too, but I’m not old and unsteady Joe Biden”?

Ed: John Delaney has sort of tried to do that, in his characteristically grating manner. But yeah, I don’t see why someone like Bennet or Castro — who, after all, served in his Cabinet — hasn’t tried that.

Jon: In general, I think Twitter magnified the leftward shift of the electorate and misled Democrats about where the party was. As a result, most of the field ran way to the left of most of the primary voters, leaving Biden by himself to claim the lion’s share.

Ed: I’m feeling very hostile to Twitter today, so I will tentatively agree.

Jon: It’s like there’s a disease that wiped out the rest of the field, and Biden is immune because he is too old to read Twitter.

Ed: Haha.

Ben: It’s not like Warren and Bernie aren’t doing pretty well.

Jon: Yeah, I mean there is a niche on the left and she’s winning it — but they’re all going for that niche. At least the top-tier candidates are.

Ed: I don’t think there’s much question that the 2020 Democratic field, including its “centrists,” sounds leftier than any previous field. That’s what President Trump will do for you.

Ben: Regardless of whether it’s a good strategy for the candidates, does reexamining Obama’s actions actually hurt the party in any way? Or is it a salutary exercise?

Jon: It’s worth distinguishing between areas where Obama didn’t go as far as he wanted to go and areas where they’re accusing him of doing bad things.

Ben: Absolutely.

Ed: I don’t think it’s especially healthy. I mean, there are activists who believe Trump is just the white-nationalist cherry on the evil corporate-whore neoliberal sundae of Clinton-Obama politics. But virtually all rank-and-file Democrats look back on those eight years of Obama as the Age of Pericles.

Ben: Neoliberal sundae? Now I want dessert.

Jon: Reagan betrayed conservatives in several really high-profile ways, but conservatives decided to form a cult of Reagan last lasted decades! It’s just not in the progressive makeup to do that, though I’d argue it’s a very useful thing for a party and a movement to have idols. Lots of young people get involved in politics because they admire a person like that. JFK is basically the last Democrat who served that role, and it’s 100 percent because he was killed.

Ben: Is there anything Obama did that is more or less universally agreed upon as a mistake, and which would be safe territory for any candidate to criticize? And I don’t mean an area where he didn’t go far enough.

Jon: Agreeing to negotiate the debt ceiling in 2011 was a mistake.

Ed: Well, his prediction that the conservative “fever” would soon break can be criticized as mistaken without fear of contradiction.

Ben: That’s a good one.

Jon: Libya intervention went very badly, though I don’t think people really account for the alternative of sitting there and letting Gaddafi massacre tens of thousands of civilians.

Ed: Clearly the idea some had that stepping up deportations would turn off the nativist heat was mistaken.

Jon: A couple times when he was trying to cut deals with Republicans he said dumb things about belt tightening, but that was rhetoric.

Ed: Yeah, as I think we are showing, most of Obama’s “mistakes” can be blamed on Republican extremism, which is always a fair target.

Ben: In conclusion, he was perfect.

Ed: Haha. I think if you broadened this chat to include some of our other colleagues, you would not get that conclusion.

Jon: He should have talked his wife into running. Michele Obama is an incredible communicator.

Ed: I agree.

Jon: The much-less-talented Democratic First Lady is the one who wanted to run instead.

Ed: I’ve written that Democrats need an “unbreakable” candidate in 2020, and I’ve also really, really wanted a woman to be nominated. Is it too late for a draft?

Does It Make Sense for Dem Candidates to Criticize Obama?