LAS VEGAS, NEVADA — Just days after Barack Obama’s legacy came under sustained criticism during the second round of Democratic presidential debates, the party’s leading candidates rushed to bear hug the former president and assure primary voters that they view him as nothing short of the gold standard.
“I did watch some of the criticisms of his administration in the debate. But I think overall, if you look at him, it's pretty amazing actually, how smart he is, and what a good job he did of figuring out what to do,” said billionaire progressive activist Tom Steyer. “I think he had some real headwinds that he had to fight. But if you really look at what President Obama stood, for what he tried to do as well as what he did, really impressive.”
At a forum hosted by the public workers union AFSCME, talk of the Obama years was dipped heavily in nostalgia. There was praise for his resolve, wonderment with his character and overwhelming approval with his legislative achievements. It wasn’t quite hagiography, but even those who had been public about their disappointments with the last Democratic president bypasseed re-litigating those in favor of stressing commonalities.
“It's a matter of public record that there were some places where President Obama and I disagree,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), who has been open about her disappointment in his financial regulatory regime and who even helped defeat Obama nominees who she deemed too close to financial institutions.
“But I want to be clear. Following the crash of 2008, I had an idea for a new consumer agency to make sure that giant banks did not make their profits by cheating people. And President Obama fought for that. When his own advisors were willing to throw it under the bus, it was President Obama who stood up and said: ‘No, when we pass financial reform, we're going to make sure the consumer agency is a part of it,’” Warren added. “That's what President Barack Obama did. His legacy on health care and his legacy on the consumer agency, are a big part of what changed this country for the better and I strongly support that and will continue to support it.”
The outward devotion to Obama on Saturday stood in contrast to the criticisms several candidates offered during the debates earlier in the week. During those forums, Obama’s legacy on immigration, trade and even health care were all scrutinized as those on the stage sought to put Joe Biden—the Democratic frontrunner this year in large part because of his eight years serving as Obama’s vice president—on the defensive. In the aftermath, Obama allies and party elders expressed dismay at the turn the conversation had taken.
“To the 20 people have been involved in the debate so far, any one of them should hope and pray, if they were fortunate to be president, that they could have the support of the country and the world like Barack Obama did,” former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) told The Daily Beast in an interview. “He will go down in the history books, for a lot of reasons. But for Democrats to try to denigrate his legacy right now. I mean, the guy is barely 50 years old, and they are trying to knock him down in status. He stood for so many strong things, such as family and integrity. I just think it's just awful. I mean, I just think… I just think it is awful.”
For many involved in presidential politics, the notion that a Democratic candidate would benefit from questioning the last Democratic president seemed boneheaded at best. Four years ago, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) was criticized for writing a blurb for a book titled “Buyer's Remorse: How Obama let Progressives Down.” It was one of the more bizarre news cycles of the primary, as Sanders’ blurb was actually about the need for the next president to rally around a progressive agenda and not (as it was presented) an endorsement of the idea that Obama had failed progressivism. But it reinforced the notion that Sanders wasn’t sufficiently appreciative of the nominal leader of the party whose nomination he was seeking.
On Saturday, the candidates who had leveled critiques of Obama’s record sought to avoid that same fate. And, in doing so, they accused the press corps of buying into spin from Biden’s campaign that criticism of the former vice president amounted to criticism of Obama.
“I'm surprised, frankly, that so much of the press has taken the line that the Biden campaign has put out there and used that line,” said Julian Castro, who served as HUD secretary under Obama and at Wednesday’s debate charged Biden had not learned “the lessons of the past” on immigration.
“Whether we're talking about education, or immigration, or healthcare, what we're talking about is how are we going to improve, right? We're always looking for how we can improve. That is not critiquing Barack Obama…. So I would just, I would, you know, ask the news media think twice about parenting, the talking points of the Vice President.”
Biden, for his part, continued to tie himself closely to the man with whom he served for eight years. And he seemed a bit more prepared for those questions about whether the Obama legacy fell short.
On immigration, Biden noted, the Obama administration may have upped deportations but “the focus was on deporting felons… not locking up people and separating them from their children.”
On the administration’s failure to fully push a bill to loosen rules to allow unions to form, he reminded the crowd of his pro-labor bonafides before adding that “there were other things that were happening as well.”
On criticism that the economic recovery was less than holistic, he encouraged the audience to remember “just how bad things were.” When the president got elected, Biden said, “everything landed on his desk but locusts.”
But then, toward the end of his talk, there was one area where Biden did concede that Obama came up short. The ex-president, he said, simply was too unwilling to tell the public how tremendous his accomplishments were.
“I kept saying you have got to take victory lap [on the Affordable Care Act] Mr. President. Let them know what you’ve done,” Biden said, before recalling Obama’s response: “We don’t have time to take a victory lap. There are so many other things to do.”