WASHINGTON — Among the tightknit circle of Obama alumni, the emails and texts started circulating quickly Wednesday night. The focus of Democratic candidates on the debate stage in Detroit may have been on former Vice President Joe Biden, but some of the charges hit squarely at the work he and others had been part of at the direction of President Barack Obama.
"What are they doing?" they asked one another. "This is stupid."
Their concern? That the increasingly combative debate among Democrats hoping to go toe-to-toe with President Donald Trump in 2020 has pushed the party into uncomfortable territory — and that Obama’s legacy could become collateral damage.
Those who served closest to the two-term former president express dismay at seeing his record picked apart by fellow Democrats at a time when they believe the focus should be squarely on the current occupant of the Oval Office. And they think it’s shortsighted since any Democratic nominee will need Obama’s help and support to win in 2020.
“I think it’s bad policy and bad politics and it’s really bad politics for the party collectively,” Matthew Miller, a former Obama Justice Department spokesperson said. “It would be smarter to talk about the accomplishments of the Obama administration and how you would build on them in the face of a complete attack on that legacy by Donald Trump, rather than to just criticize Obama and stop there.”
“It’s asinine,” Cornell Belcher, a Democratic strategist and former Obama pollster, said. “President Obama is the most popular figure in the Democratic Party, only surpassed by his wife, Michelle Obama. The idea that you’re going to gain ground by attacking elements of the policies of Barack Obama and his legacy is really, really bad strategy.”
While some are publicly warning Democrats about the risks of critiquing the last administration, many feel constrained from doing so more forcefully for a range of reasons — including the fact that Obama himself is determined to avoid even the hint of wading in on the contest.
“Was he surprised? He was not surprised. He gets that we’re in a different place,” one official close to the former president said, noting that Obama himself has said the candidates need to present a forward looking vision.
“He does think that Democrats need to be transparent with voters about how candidates would achieve them and he thinks that Democratic candidates need to be forward looking and focused on prosecuting the case against President Trump.”
The candidates’ critiques of certain aspects of the Obama record — particularly immigration — are in some ways an inevitable consequence of Biden’s strategy to tightly embrace his former running mate and position himself as their administration's most ardent defender.
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But there’s also a real debate over whether the Obama White House could have gone further to push for progressive policies and that discussion is happening at a time when some candidates are eager to align themselves with an activist base that feels the party needs a bolder approach.
It's that critique that tends to most rile longtime Obama loyalists who see candidates desperate to distinguish themselves by making bold promises or score points at Obama’s expense.
“It's not a long-term strategy — it's not a strategy that sustains anyone,” one former Obama official said, requesting anonymity like others in discussing the internal party dynamics. “It's great to have a strong moment on the debate stage but the debates are all leading to Iowa, and Iowa thinks they created Barack Obama, and he's extremely popular with voters there. “
Another former official said this is a strategy largely being employed by those candidates struggling to break through. "Is there someone who feels like they have to be more sharply critical of Obama in order to stand out? I don’t think that person is likely to be the nominee,” the official said.
For his part, Trump is capitalizing on the Democratic infighting, raising it at his campaign rally in Ohio on Thursday night.
“The Democrats spent more time attacking Barack Obama than they did attacking me, practically,” the president said. “That wasn’t pretty.”
One person close to Obama expressed concern that the hand-wringing by Democrats about attacks on Obama policies might cause the candidates “to overcorrect and heap praise on him in the next debate.”
Former Attorney General Eric Holder has been perhaps the mostly public in admonishing Democratic candidates seeking to capitalize on any disappointments with the Obama record, tweeting about it twice in as many days.
“Acknowledge the achievements and then build on them. Expand the possibilities that Barack made available. Do NOT attack the good faith, tough choices made then for short term, ultimately harmful, political gain now,” he wrote Friday. “As Democrats we need to be proud and be smart.”
Biden on Thursday quickly leaped to Obama’s defense, saying the former president had nothing to apologize for.
“I hope the next debate we can talk about … our answers to fix the things Trump has broken, not how Barack Obama made all of these mistakes,” he said.
Biden’s health care proposal is the most substantive effort to build on what have been largely rhetorical efforts to tie himself to Obama. He has argued that pursuing a "Medicare for All"-style plan would scrap the Obama administration’s hardest fought victory — the Affordable Care Act.
But rivals have been quick to point out that Obama himself has called Medicare for All one of the many “good ideas” being debated in the primary.
Some close to Obama are downplaying the glancing blows. Jon Favreau, Obama’s former speechwriter, tweeted that he saw the sparring in Detroit as “legitimate debates about our immigration and trade policies.” But he added: “I also think it’d be far more useful to focus the next debate on Trump.”
Another official who continues to work closely with Obama said they viewed the discussion as “wildly overhyped.”
“If you ask any of the candidates if they’re attacking Obama’s legacy, they’ll scream ‘no,’” the official said.
As a candidate himself, Obama was at times critical of his Democratic predecessors. As he ran on a platform of hope and change in 2008 against Hillary Clinton, he told one newspaper that President Bill Clinton had not “changed the trajectory of America” as much as President Ronald Reagan had done.
But by the end of his own term, Obama was advising Democrats not to grow cynical or frustrated because progress toward their goals was not “instantaneous.”
“The trajectory of progress always happens in fits and starts,” Obama said in a 2015 interview. “Sometimes the task of government is to make incremental improvements or try to steer the ocean liner 2 degrees north or south so that 10 years from now, suddenly we’re in a very different place than we were.”