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Obama without Obama-ism: 2020 Democrats embrace the ex-president but not his policies

Former president Barack Obama gestures as he speaks during a town hall meeting in Berlin on April 6. (Michael Sohn/Associated Press)
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Beto O’Rourke frequently praises former president Barack Obama, calling him “an extraordinary leader” at a campaign stop this week. But when O’Rourke is talking policy, he shies away from big parts of the Obama agenda.

O’Rourke’s climate change plan would end all new drilling on public lands, a politically sensitive step Obama chose not to take. When discussing immigration recently, he criticized policies under Obama as well as President Trump. 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.

The phenomenon reflects the leftward shift of the Democratic Party, as well as a reaction to the perceived flaws of 2016 standard-bearer Hillary Clinton, who avoided far-reaching liberal policies and seemed to offer a third Obama term.

At the same time, Trump’s norm-busting presidency has prompted some Democrats to rethink not just the past election but also the past few decades of political history. They are calling for fundamental shifts and invoking leaders who significantly reshaped American life, such as Franklin D. Roosevelt, rather than recent Democratic presidents who achieved smaller changes, including Obama and Bill Clinton.

One exception is Joe Biden, who leads in early Democratic primary polls and has highlighted his role as Obama’s loyal vice president. But even Biden has selectively distanced himself from some Obama policies, suggesting he’d go further than Obama on health care and climate change.

And liberal activists and some rivals have begun challenging Biden as out of step with today’s party, including at a recent climate change meeting where participants demanded that Biden embrace the Green New Deal.

Reed Hundt, who served on Obama’s transition team, said Obama’s failure to enact the sweeping change that voters craved left an opening for Trump to frame himself as a change agent. The candidates are signaling they won’t repeat that mistake, he said.

“One after another, they are re-litigating the decisions made by Obama,” Hundt said. “And why is that? It’s because tragically and in an unpredicted and a heartbreaking way, those decisions in 2008 did create the opportunity that Donald Trump seized.”

Obama’s signature domestic achievement, for example, was the Affordable Care Act. But many of the Democratic candidates support Medicare-for-all, another name for the single-payer health system that Obama rejected in crafting the ACA.

Nine of the candidates — including Julián Castro, a former Obama Cabinet secretary — recently told The Washington Post they would not support Obama’s 2014 immigration policy, which targeted those who recently had crossed into the country.

The list goes on. From dissolving tech companies to shuttering coal plants, packing the Supreme Court to imposing a wealth tax, the current candidates are going where Obama chose not to tread. At root, they argue that Obama’s fundamental approach — compromising with Republicans to achieve important but limited change — is pointless in the face of the GOP’s scorched-earth tactics.

Two of the more left-leaning candidates seeking the Democratic nomination, Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), took on Obama even when he was in office. Warren helped sink one of his Treasury Department nominees, delivered floor speeches attacking his personnel decisions and battled his trade policies.

Sanders, for his part, once considered launching a primary bid from Obama’s left, and he wrote a blurb for a 2016 book entitled, “Buyer’s Remorse: How Obama Let Progressives Down.”

Katie Hill, a spokeswoman for Obama, said the former president “welcomes policy debates within the Democratic Party and beyond.” She added: “The policy debate has shifted since 2007-08, and that’s good — it’s evidence of the progress made since then by activists and elected officials at all levels.”

But she said candidates should ground their promises in reality, suggesting not all the Democratic hopefuls are doing so. Obama, Hill said, “urges everyone running to be transparent with voters about how these ideas will work in the nitty-gritty, how they’re paid for, and how they’ll affect the lives of all Americans.”

The balance isn’t always easy. Many energized liberal activists are rethinking the Obama years. But the former president remains very popular in the party, and more than 70 percent of New Hampshire Democrats in a recent Monmouth University poll said it was either “very” or “somewhat” important to nominate a candidate who would build on Obama’s legacy.

The dynamic reflects a contradiction that characterized the Obama presidency itself. As a person of color with an inclusive philosophy, he embodied what many saw, and still see, as the party’s future. But when it came to policy, Obama pursued a moderation that often frustrated liberals who wanted to push harder and faster, and who felt he put too much trust in GOP leaders.

Now, many Democrats say they want a president who is honorable like Obama but ruthless like Trump.

If there’s one exception, it’s the candidate who spent eight years with Obama in the White House. At a rally in Philadelphia on Saturday, Biden paused to pay tribute to Obama.

“Let me stop here and say something we don’t say often enough as a party or as a nation: Barack Obama is a man of extraordinary character, courage, and decency,” Biden said. “He was a president our children could look up to and did. He was a great president.”

On the stump, Biden says he wants to extend Obama’s legacy rather than upend it. He defends the ACA, saying in April, “We need to build on it. What we can’t do is blow it up.”

Other candidates also praise Obama, who retains loyalty especially among African American voters. Warren often touts her ties to the former president, noting that he tapped her to set up the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and occasionally sharing an anecdote about chatting with him in the White House. On CNN recently, she declined to say how she would govern differently from Obama.

But even Biden says he’d rewrite the ACA to include a public health-care option, an idea dropped from Obama’s version of the health bill. And asked whether she would call herself an “Obama Democrat, ” Warren raised her hand in apparent exasperation and said, “I don’t know what it means.” Rather, she said, she’s “an Elizabeth Warren Democrat.”

Some candidates go further, touting their clashes with the Obama administration. Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) cites her brawl with the Obama Justice Department over a multibillion-dollar mortgage settlement when she was California’s attorney general.

In her 2019 book “The Truths We Hold,” Harris wrote that she was “dumbfounded” when a tentative deal was presented to a roomful of state attorneys general. Rather than staying at the meeting, she recounted, she left to confront an Obama official.

“I told him that of the 10 cities hit hardest by the foreclosure crisis at the time, seven were in California; that it was my job to get to the bottom of it; and that I couldn’t sign on to anything that was going to preclude me from doing my own investigation,” Harris wrote.

Asked recently whether she’d call herself an Obama Democrat, she said, “I’d call myself Kamala.”

What’s clear is that this is a very different political moment from 2004, when Democrats roared their approval as Obama declared at the Democratic convention that there are no red states or blue states, only the United States.

The party’s emphasis is on defeating Republicans, not working with them. A dozen of the 2020 hopefuls say they would favor, or at least consider, jettisoning the Senate filibuster so they could enact a liberal agenda without the GOP support they say they’d never get anyway.

Obama “was blocked again and again and again by a Republican majority that was determined to block any benefits that might take even a sliver of profits away from the American corporate community,” said John Hickenlooper, former governor of Colorado and a presidential hopeful.

As a candidate in 2008, Obama’s policy wish list covered many of the same goals as the current crop, though in less-sweeping forms. He urged universal health care because “plans that tinker, and halfway measures, now belong to yesterday”; pledged to repeal Republican tax cuts for the rich; and pushed to increase the minimum wage and tie it to inflation.

He didn’t achieve all of it. Governing, he learned, was harder.

Jenna Johnson and David Weigel contributed to this report.