Barack Obama is not exactly fired up and ready to go. Instead, he is rather tentatively dipping his toes in the water of the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, seeking to gently guide his party in the direction he thinks it should move. And it may cause some tension among the Democratic candidates as they seek to win the affections of a party for whom Obama is still a hero.

Last week, at a meeting of Democratic donors, Obama offered what sounded like a criticism of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. “This is still a country that is less revolutionary than it is interested in improvement,” he said. “They like seeing things improved. But the average American doesn’t think that we have to completely tear down the system and remake it.”

In his latest comments, however, Obama seems to be telling everyone not to get too worried about having a rambunctious nominating campaign:

“Everybody needs to chill out about the candidates but gin up about the prospect of rallying behind whoever emerges from this process,” Obama said in response to a question about the primary, according to CNN.
“The field will narrow, and there’s going to be one person, and if that is not your perfect candidate and there are certain aspects of what they say that you don’t agree with and you don’t find them completely inspiring the way you’d like, I don’t care,” Obama said Thursday. “Because the choice is so stark and the stakes are so high that you cannot afford to be ambivalent in this race.”

Perfectly reasonable advice, given the urgency of defeating President Trump.

Obama has refused to endorse a candidate in the primaries, no doubt to the consternation of Joe Biden, who would love nothing more than to have his former boss’ imprimatur. But this seems like the appropriate role at this stage of the process for the party’s most beloved figure: to encourage unity without weighing in to the conflicts gripping the party as the primaries proceed.

Nevertheless, it probably takes some self-control (which Obama has never lacked). Because there’s a way in which his legacy is at stake in these primaries.

Although every candidate is unique and they all will express their admiration for Obama, it wouldn’t be surprising if he was troubled by the way the party has moved left since he left the White House. And it’s not only because, as David Swerdlick argues, Obama is in many ways — in policy, in perspective, in temperament — a conservative.

That’s one of the ironies of the Obama presidency: Despite his center-left policy agenda, Republicans regularly described him as an ideological radical who wanted nothing less than to tear the entirety of American society and government to shreds so that something unrecognizable and horrifying could be built in its place. Their argument was cynical, of course, meant to characterize anything to the left of the GOP as a socialist nightmare.

But it was also based on race. A black president could not be anything but a radical, could he, launching some kind of anti-white purge? “What if [Obama] is so outside our comprehension, that only if you understand Kenyan, anti-colonial behavior, can you begin to piece together [his actions]?” asked Newt Gingrich in 2010.

No matter how much Obama ruled as an ordinary, even moderate Democrat, Republicans never stopped calling him a wild-eyed fanatic. Even as his presidency was coming to a close, Marco Rubio famously suggested that Obama “knows exactly what he’s doing,” meaning the smoldering wreckage that was America in 2016 was not the result of Obama’s incompetence but the poisonous fruit of his project to destroy the country.

Back on Planet Earth, Obama pursued a standard Democratic agenda, while disappointing liberals in multiple ways; it’s not as if a President Saul Alinsky would have bailed out the banks and made sure not a single Wall Street executive was prosecuted for tanking the economy.

But today, the Democratic Party demands policy initiatives that go far beyond where Obama was willing to go. Even the “moderate” candidates, for instance, have proposed health care reforms centered on a comprehensive public option, something Obama couldn’t include in the Affordable Care Act after opposition from Democrats like Joseph I. Lieberman made it impossible. On issue after issue, the median Democratic position is now substantially to the left of what Obama was able to do.

That’s before we even get to the approach advocated by Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders. It’ll be particularly interesting to see what Obama does if Warren becomes the nominee, since they have an uneasy relationship, to put it kindly, both because of lingering tensions from the time when he hired her to create the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (which was her idea in the first place), and something more fundamental to her 2020 campaign.

Warren’s core argument — that this is the time for “big, structural change” — is a kind of unspoken rebuke of Obamaism, to the extent such a thing exists. It not only rejects his incrementalist approach; it assumes that the things he accomplished were insufficient. It says we can’t just undo the last four years and return to how it was when Obama was in office, which is what Biden proposes. Instead, Warren argues that we have to go much further in changing government and the economy than Obama even contemplated.

Don’t get me wrong — if Warren is the nominee, I’m sure Obama will campaign for her enthusiastically. After all, she’ll be running against Trump. But it’ll be very interesting to see what he has to say while the party is still deciding who should lead it.

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