Bernie Sanders has bashed Joe Biden for backing the Iraq War and voting for the North American Free Trade Agreement. Elizabeth Warren has gone after him for taking “the side of the credit card companies.” Cory Booker has called the 1994 crime bill that Biden helped write “awful” and “shameful.”
But for most of Biden’s Democratic rivals, they’ve treated one part of his record as taboo to criticize: His years in the Obama White House.
There’s a good reason for that. Even as much of the Democratic Party moves to his left, Obama remains extremely well-liked among liberal voters. Progressive activists and operatives eager to knock down Biden from his frontrunner perch admit it could be a serious problem that eight years of Biden’s political career is effectively off-limits. And for Biden, who is explicitly running as Obama’s heir, it’s been a godsend.
“It’s going to be challenging for progressives to attack that legacy,” said Yvette Simpson, chief executive of the progressive political action committee Democracy for America. “Because Obama not only is and was so popular, but people are very nostalgic for that time, particularly after a few years of Trump.”
For years, left-wing activists have disapproved of the Obama administration’s management of the economic crash, opioid crisis, immigrant deportations, and ill-fated attempts to compromise with Republicans. But many believe it would be political suicide for progressive presidential candidates to question Obama’s record at length, even in the service of defeating Biden.
They also think there’s plenty of other baggage in Biden’s past to glom onto, from his support for the Defense of Marriage Act to the way he handled Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’ confirmation hearings.
“The biggest weaknesses Biden has, for the most part, are not things he did in the Obama administration,” said Sean McElwee, the co-founder of the left-wing think tank Data for Progress. “Luckily for progressives, Joe Biden is literally 150 years old, which means he has a half-century of a career otherwise to attack.”
That leaves progressives in the difficult position, however, of ignoring the part of Biden’s political career that voters know best — and that Biden is explicitly campaigning to extend. Biden calls himself an “Obama-Biden Democrat,” frequently refers to his “buddy Barack” on the campaign trail and fills his social media feeds with references to Obama.
Some anti-Biden Democrats say they need to portray the former vice president as something approaching the opposite of the liberal, transformational Obama on the 2008 campaign trail. Instead of returning America to the Obama era, these progressive operatives argue, he’d take it back to a time before that. They hope to persuade voters that Biden’s long tenure in the Senate provides the best preview of how he would govern.
“It’s perfectly consistent to say that President Obama righted the ship and aimed it in a better direction, but now we have an opportunity to move the ship much further and much faster toward progress,” said Adam Green, co-founder, Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which has endorsed Warren. “The person to do that is clearly not Joe Biden, as he moves backwards on issues ranging from the Hyde Amendment to NAFTA to a ‘middle ground’ on the existential climate crisis.”
South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg has taken that route. Without naming Biden, Buttigieg has said that some of his fellow Democrats “want to see a return to the 1990s or 2000s,” but “that doesn’t have to happen.” Warren has called for “big, structural change.”
Progressives warned that criticizing Obama could particularly hurt 2020 candidates among black Americans, the most loyal voting bloc of the Democratic Party. “Biden’s early advantage among African-Americans has more to do with Obama than Biden. And if you attack that, you start to alienate those voters,” Simpson said.
However, a handful of left-wing Democratic operatives think Biden’s challengers need to go further and explicitly outline to voters where they think Obama failed — or they’ll lose.
“Biden is winning, or at least is ahead, because nobody has made the argument that Obama’s policies are the reason that Democrats lost in 2016,” said Matt Stoller, a former Senate Budget Committee aide under Bernie Sanders who is now a fellow at the Open Markets Institute. “They’re not challenging the fundamental narrative that Joe Biden is running on, which is that Obama did a good job and we need to get back to that.
“I’ve been bugging the campaigns about it, and they’re like, ‘Yeah, yeah, we know, but we don’t have a way to do it,’” he added.
Democratic socialists, too, see an opening. “It’s no secret that he spent his time in the Obama White House furthering policies that redistributed wealth upwards,” Maria Svart, the national director of the Democratic Socialists of America, said of Biden. “Bernie Sanders should absolutely critique him because voters want straight talk and they know when they have been screwed by the wealthy few.”
But even Sanders, a democratic socialist who once suggested that someone should primary Obama, has largely not gone after Biden’s time in the Obama administration. The exception is Biden’s support of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which Sanders has pointed to repeatedly.
Warren, who in the past called out Obama for downplaying Americans’ economic pain, has avoided such talk so far on the campaign trail.
Struggling in the polls, Beto O’Rourke has gone the furthest of any candidate in arguing that the Obama-Biden partnership didn’t go far enough.
“You cannot go back to the end of the Obama administration and think that that’s good enough,” he said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” Thursday, citing Obama’s inability to pass “meaningful” gun control. “As much as a horror show as Trump has been … we had real problems before Donald Trump became president.”
Asked if Biden would be a return to the past, O’Rourke eagerly replied, “He is.”
If Biden remains atop the polls, more of his opponents may choose to take the same course. And Reed Hundt, a former Obama official who wrote the book, “A Crisis Wasted: Barack Obama’s Defining Decisions,” said Democratic presidential candidates are already positioning themselves as separate from Obama, albeit subtly.
“Nobody wants to distance themselves from the true glow of Barack Obama’s charming personality, his wit, his integrity,” said Hundt. “But they are also 100 percent distancing themselves on policy points.”
In fact, he pointed out, even Biden himself did so recently. In a news release about his plan to address climate change, Biden’s campaign said his proposal would “go well beyond the Obama-Biden administration platform and put us on the right track.”