Whenever a party has an open presidential primary, its voters ask themselves some very fundamental questions about their identity, their history and their future. And as The Post’s Annie Linskey reports, Democrats are struggling to find a complete answer to one particularly complicated question: How do you stand in relation to the legacy of Barack Obama?

She describes an interaction between a voter and Beto O’Rourke:

And when an Iowa voter on Monday asked how O’Rourke would avoid the “heartbreaks” of Obama’s failure to deliver liberal policies, the candidate outlined his own frustrations.
“So many people who were willing to walk through walls” for Obama, O’Rourke said, “no longer felt connected to the mission, to the policies, and to the goals during that administration.”
It’s a message typical of the 2020 candidates. Most praise Obama effusively — as a person, leader and symbol — but are far less enthusiastic when it comes to Obama’s actual policies, departing from his agenda on everything from economics to immigration to the environment.
They are embracing Obama without Obama-ism.

According to Gallup, Obama left office with an approval rating of 95 percent among Democrats. And yet, liberal ambivalence about him is undeniable. The reasons have as much to do with his relationship with the Republican Party as they are about Obama himself.

To begin, let’s consider the criticisms many liberals make of Obama and his presidency. The first and perhaps most important is that Obama wasted valuable time and energy trying to win the support of Republicans for policies such as the Affordable Care Act. Though the GOP made no bones about its intention to oppose him on absolutely everything, it seemed to take years before he gave up on the hope that with sufficiently compelling arguments, appeals to country and an openness to compromise, they could be won over.

The second and related criticism is that Obama advocated a policy incrementalism that made larger changes impossible, essentially compromising with himself before negotiations began. Exhibit A is the ACA, which to liberals represents both a wonderful success (it gave tens of millions of Americans health coverage and protected preexisting conditions for the first time, after all) and a failure, when set against a truly universal plan that might have been possible.

There are other criticisms, too — missed opportunities in areas such as the appointment of judges or political reform, substantive policy objections in areas such as trade — but there’s something else that I think we don’t focus on: emotion.

I’d argue that the reason many Democrats are so ambivalent about Obama is the emotional journey he took them on, the one O’Rourke alludes to. It started with the 2008 campaign, an extraordinary enterprise that gave Democrats not just hope that Obama could win but also hope that the entirety of American politics could be transformed into something that, frankly, it has never been. During that year’s primaries, Hillary Clinton argued that he was selling a gauzy vision that was blind to the cruel realities of politics, and most Democrats responded, “We don’t care. This feels too good.” It’s a testament to Obama’s singular political talent and charisma that he could pull that off.

Then it turned out that governing is not just hard, but often unpleasant. It involves setbacks and compromises even when it’s successful. And Republican obstruction poisoned everything. By the end of Obama’s eight years, what Democrats hoped would be a glorious dance into a shining new era turned out to be a crawl over broken glass for every incremental victory.

And then to top it off, Donald Trump got elected. So Obama started by lifting liberals’ spirits as high as they had ever been, and left with those spirits in tatters. Trump’s election said to them, “Everything you thought was true about America, about how it could be open and inclusive and diverse and forward-looking? Well, America just elected this guy.” Had they not felt so much hope eight years before, it might not have been so painful.

On reflection, part of the problem with the vision Obama began with was that it treated Republicans as almost nonexistent, yet their unceasing opposition and procedural radicalism ended up defining his presidency, culminating in their refusal to allow him to fill a vacant Supreme Court seat. Which is why every Democrat now seeking the presidency has to tell voters how his or her theory of political change accounts for the GOP.

There’s no perfect answer to that question, but if your theory of change requires Republicans to be something different from what they are now, you’re going to fail. Unfortunately, right now that’s true of the two Democrats leading in the polls, who happen to be the farthest away from one another ideologically: Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders.

Biden thinks that once Trump is gone, Republicans will have an “epiphany” and realize that the way they’ve been acting for the past decade hasn’t worked for America, and then they’ll sit down with him and hash out bipartisan solutions to pressing problems. Sanders thinks that his people-powered revolution will be so overwhelming that it might lead even Republicans to support policies they abhor, so there’s no need to make procedural changes such as abolishing the filibuster in order to allow for majority rule (though he does say that you could pass Medicare-for-all through reconciliation to circumvent the filibuster).

In other words, Biden’s theory of change rests on Republicans joining with him, while Sanders’s — not too dissimilar from Obama’s — envisions Republicans as basically irrelevant. Both of them seem naive in their own ways.

What you can say for them, however, is that they’re clear on what they think of Obama’s presidency. To Biden (not surprisingly), it was a complete success and all we need to do is wind back the clock to those glory days. To Sanders, it was a failure and we need only be ambitious where Obama was cautious. The rest of the candidates seem to still be figuring out how to talk about the Obama era. They may have already realized that it will always be complicated.

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