- Former Vice President Joe Biden is running for president on a platform of returning America to the stability and decency of the Obama administration.
- Many of his progressive rivals want to go beyond promising a return to the past and are comfortable criticizing Obama’s legacy.
- But Biden also deflected some questions about his own record by invoking Obama, and tried to distance himself from some of the more controversial parts of Obama’s presidency, including the deportation of 3 million undocument immigrants.
- In a video last year, Obama indicated that he doesn’t think his legacy should stay set in stone. He also criticized himself on multiple occasions.
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Former Vice President Joe Biden is running for president on a platform of returning America to the stability and decency of the Obama administration — but many of his progressive rivals want to go beyond promising a return to the past and are comfortable criticizing Obama’s legacy.
This tension flared at the second round of Democratic primary debates in late July, with many of the progressive candidates on stage putting Biden on the spot in highlighting some of the Obama administration’s more controversial policies like the deportations of millions of undocumented immigrants.
The day after the debate, Biden told reporters, "I was a little surprised at how much incoming there was about Barack, about the president…he changed the dialogue, he changed the whole question, he changed what was going on. And the idea that somehow it’s comparable to what this guy is doing is absolutely bizarre," Biden said of comparisons between Obama and Trump’s hardline immigration policies.
While former President Barack Obama is a highly popular figure among liberals and Biden is appealing to those who feel a sense of nostalgia for his administration, the debates showed that there’s also a strong appetite both to critically examine the Obama administration’s policies and push for more progressive goals.
Biden is the frontrunner of the field, and is running on expanding Obama’s legacy by bolstering healthcare coverage and taking action on climate issues without advocating for some of the bold changes, like instituting a government-run healthcare system, that progressives are running on.
Throughout his campaign and on the debate stage, Biden invokes his work and relationship with Obama at every possible turn, so much so that it became a running joke. In both the June and July debates, he was the biggest cheerleader and defender of many of Obama’s policies.
Biden downplayed his role in the administration’s immigration policies
Biden also deflected some questions about his own record by invoking Obama, and tried to distance himself from some of the more controversial parts of Obama’s presidency, including immigration.
During his time a president, Obama was nicknamed the "deporter-in-chief" for his administration aggressively cracking down on illegal immigration and deporting nearly 3 million undocumented immigrants. At the debate, Biden was interrupted by protesters shouting "3 million people deported."
Former HUD Secretary Julian Castro — who served in Obama’s cabinet along with Biden and who has made immigration reform one of the main issues of his campaign — sparred with Biden over whether unauthorized border crossings should be classified as a civil violation instead of a misdemeanor crime, saying, "Mr. Vice President, it looks like one of us has learned the lessons of the past and one of us hasn’t."
At the debate, the moderators asked Biden if, as president, he would continue to deport immigrants at a similarly high rate. When Mayor Bill de Blasio pushed Biden on whether he advised Obama against enacting such draconian immigration policies, Biden distanced himself from the president.
"I was vice president. I’m not the president. I made my recommendation in private. Unlike you, I expect you would go ahead and say whatever was said privately. That is not what I do. What I do say to you is, he moved to fundamentally change the system," Biden said.
Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey directly called Biden out on his frequent name-dropping of Obama, saying, "You can’t have it both ways. You invoke President Obama more than anybody in this campaign. You can’t do it when it’s convenient and dodge it when it’s not," to huge applause from the audience.
Biden has been criticized more on his long and controversial record on criminal justice and civil rights issues than possibly any other issue. But when de Blasio challenged Biden again on his record championing tough-on-crime legislation in the US Senate, Biden deflected back to Obama.
"I find it fascinating, everybody is talking about how terrible I am on these issues. Barack Obama knew exactly who I was. He had ten lawyers do a background check and everything about me on civil rights and he chose me and said it was the best decision he ever made," Biden said.
JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images
Biden’s team accused Medicare for All of undermining the ACA
On the contentious issue of healthcare too, Biden has been a fierce defender of the Affordable Care Act, the landmark healthcare legislation he and Obama fought to pass.
In and outside of the debate, Biden’s team has sought to label Medicare for All plans like the one Sen. Kamala Harris rolled out as trying to "unravel the hard-won Affordable Care Act that the Trump Administration is trying to undo right now."
When asked if he believed the current healthcare system is not working in the debate, Biden responded, "Obamacare is working. The way to build this and get to it immediately is to build on Obamacare," Biden said.
In the immediate aftermath of the debate, several liberal and conservative commentators alike expressed concern that Democrats were shooting themselves in the foot and benefiting Biden by criticizing Obama’s immigration policies and advocating for Medicare for All.
But in a video of Obama from last year that Harris’ campaign posted to Twitter, the former president himself indicated that he doesn’t think his legacy should stay set in stone, and the next generation of Democratic leaders was happy to see Democratic congressional candidates running on new and bold ideas he didn’t advocate for when he was in office.
In the clip, Obama said, "Democrats aren’t just running on good, old ideas like raising the minimum wage. They’re running on good new ideas, like Medicare for All and giving workers seats on corporate boards."
The argument that criticizing Obama will make Democrats look dis-unified and hurt their election chances holds even less water considering how much Obama criticized himself and his own administration on multiple occasions.
In another clip of Obama speaking shortly before the 2012 election, he too reflected critically back on his first term in office, saying, "while I’m very proud of what we’ve achieved together, I’m much far mindful of my own failings. But I have never been more hopeful about America. Not because I think I have all the answers… but because of you."
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