Candidates Are Smartly Backing Away from the Obama Attacks

August 3, 2019

Their Supporters Would Do Well to Follow Their Lead

Don’t Be Surprised if Dems Who Cast Shade on the Obama Presidency Only End Up in the Shadows

By Al Giordano

A May 2019 YouGov poll echoed what every other survey on the subject has told us in recent years. Only two percent of Democrats describe Barack Obama’s presidency as “poor.” Just seven percent term it as “fair.” 33 percent describe it as “good.” And 58 percent proudly proclaim it was “excellent.” That’s a good snapshot of the people who are going to choose the 2020 Democratic nominee for president.

The two percent in the smallest group, alas, feel aggrieved that the rest of us don’t share their negativity and they are regularly loud about it on social media and elsewhere. Again and again they seek to relitigate it. They treat it like an argument that if they could just somehow win it (whatever “winning” an argument means) then we could all go back in time and change history. This Marvel Cinematic Universe fan asks them: You and what Pym Particles?

When they inevitably provoke pushback from the rest of us who appreciate and admire President Obama and the accomplishments of his administration (a great many who are only alive today because of Obamacare, so we tend take their attacks somewhat personally; do such people really believe that their academic and ideological purity points should be valued over people’s actual lives?), they seek to change the argument to whether they have a “right” to criticize Obama (and they apparently lack the requisite self-awareness to know when policy criticism goes over the line into personal or attack or malicious falsehood – to them all of those things are just a “critique”).

This is primarily a problem with some white, college educated activist types. They feel entitled to slam anyone and everything that doesn’t agree with them 100 percent on any matter. They were also raised and trained by their privilege and by academia to feel themselves more expert on every topic than the rest of us. And as Captain Obvious could say: we white folks have too much of a tendency to get overly defensive when anybody points out that there is a matter of race or racism being masked by an argument that claims to be about something else. So before we wade into that part of what is going on here, let’s take a quick stroll down Amnesia Lane.

We’ve Seen this Movie Before

To see politics through that kind of self-centered lens is what led Bernie Sanders on WNYC radio in 2011 to encourage a primary challenger to Obama’s 2012 reelection: “If a progressive Democrat wants to run, I think it would enliven the debate, raise some issues, and people have a right to do that. I’ve been asked whether I am going to do that. I’m not. I don’t know who is, but in a democracy, it’s not a bad idea to have different voices out there.”

Sanders doubled down on that statement months later on the Thom Hartmann radio show, saying, “I think one of the reasons that the president has been able to move so far to the right is that there is no primary opposition to him, and I think it would do this country a good deal of service if people started thinking about candidates out there to begin contrasting what is a progressive agenda as opposed to what Obama is doing.”

When, during a 2015 Democratic presidential debate, former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley said, “When President Obama was running for re-election, I was glad to step up and work very hard for him, while Sen. Sanders was trying to find someone to primary him,” Sanders replied, “that’s categorically false.” That’s the exact moment that The Year of Gaslighting began that would weaken the Democratic nomination’s value and open the door to the Trump presidency.

For the rest of the 2016 campaign Sanders and his supporters kept either denying that their candidate had called for Obama to be primaried or justified it by echoing Sanders’ ridiculous tactical claims about how change is supposedly made (coming from one who in a quarter century in Congress literally changed no significant law of his own initiative), while doubling down on continuing to drag down the value of the brand of the first black US president and Democratic control of the White House.

After all, if it meant that little to have Barack Obama there, the logical extension of their yearlong claims inevitably led a lot of gullible people out there to conclude: then why not let Trump have the Oval? And look where it’s gotten us.

Don’t Be Like Those Guys

Now, like Sanders supporters four years ago, some (not all, but some) supporters of current Democratic candidates whose statements have been seen by many as, at minimum, not being sufficiently protective of the value of the Obama brand to defeating Trump next year and who were careless enough to have handed Trump a rhetorical weapon to continue hammering away at its value as he did this week, are telling us that nobody trashed Obama, that they only “critiqued” his policies.

“I was watching the so-called debate last night,” Trump told a Cincinnati arena filled with his followers. “I also watched the night before. That was long, long television and the Democrats spent more time attacking Barack Obama than they did attacking me practically.”

The only reason Trump could say that is because of the carelessness of some Democratic candidates at the debate. And yet in the passions of a political campaign I have had friends whose opinions and experience I respect tell me that it never happened, that nobody harmed the value of the Obama presidency. And suddenly I’m hearing Bernie Sanders in 2015 tell me “that’s categorically false” over something that I knew to be true. No, please, no.

Don’t try to gaslight us, not your friends and allies. It didn’t work on us for Sanders and crew four years ago (but did work on getting too many of his cohort to vote for embarrassingly bush-league third-party options or sit home in November of 2016, the key element in handing Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin’s Electoral Votes to Trump). And telling us today that we did not hear words that made us cringe as they were being said is exactly that kind of gaslighting. No, no, no, no. Not this time. Not without pushback early and often.

Now, I care about the value of the nomination enough not to single out the candidates who did not choose their words carefully enough in this week’s debates, or assign them malicious intent, because I believe that when people as important to the Democratic coalition as Joy Ann Reid and Neera Tanden are out there offering very similar pushback that our candidates, the smart ones anyway, will correct themselves.

I’m glad Kamala Harris has clarified, “I have nothing but praise for President Obama.”

I appreciate Julian Castro’s amended statement: “I’ve always praised Barack Obama,” and the additional clarification, “the Obama administration got better on the issue of immigration as it went along.”

I should hope so, Secretary Castro! Because if Joe Biden is to blame for anything anyone didn’t like about those policies, so would he be as one of his cabinet members. (The pushback Castro got from some calling him disloyal to the 44th president is exactly what would happen to Biden, only on a much more amplified stage, if he even once indulges the calls on him to denounce or put distance between himself and the president he served. Joe understands that better than his detractors.)

And for Cory Booker, to say of President Obama, as he did on Thursday, “Heck, if he were running for president for a third term, I wouldn’t be running,” was a good start (even if 2020 would technically be the campaign for Obama’s fourth term), so let’s keep trending in that direction, okay?

Each of them would be a terrific POTUS, but none of them, if he or she wins the nomination, will be able to take back the presidency if the Obama brand is allowed to be weakened by Trump or anyone else taking their words and throwing them back at them the way Trump did on Thursday night.

It would be a good idea, for example, while Democratic candidates promote their various proposals to improve health care that they reassure those who are finally getting health care for the first time in years, in some cases ever, that they will make it a priority to protect and defend Obamacare and offer a full-throated promotion of its successes.

As Harry Enten pointed out on CNN today, there are clear reasons why a in a recent Kaiser Foundation poll a massive 83 percent of Americans considered health care a “very important” issue (the next most important, the economy, had a more modest 60 percent who considered it “very” much so), that a majority of Americans (55 percent) say they want to build on Obamacare as opposed to a minority (39 percent) who say to replace it with a plan like Medicare for All.

Which is why it would be a very good idea for Senators Warren, Sanders and Harris, who all favor some version of a Medicare for All policy, to make it crystal clear, and adamantly so, to say that as president they will protect and defend and restore every clause of Obamacare until such a point is reached that they’ve found the votes in Congress for something they consider better and it has become law.

If you’re not one of the many whose life has been saved by Obamacare, let me share with you an open secret among those of us for whom it has: Anything less than reassurance that it will be defended as it is while expansion and improvement of it is sought only causes people (myself included and I hear it from many in the same boat) affliction of emotional trauma and distress. And those kinds of stresses negatively impact people’s physical health, too.

If Joe Biden ends up being the only Democratic candidate that “gets” it and the rest don’t figure it out, they will only end up forfeiting the nomination to him. If he is the only one willing to go to the mat, to defend, promote and sell the value of the Obama presidency, of Obamacare, and as consequence a Democratic administration, then none of the others are going to be the nominee.

The First Time Candidates Are on a Learning Curve

Only Biden and Sanders have experience running for president (sure, Mike Gravel, the gadfly from Alaska, has experience as a protest candidate, but that’s not the same level of experience). Biden knows where his bread is buttered: In strengthening the value of the nomination, one that he knows he can win.

Sanders values weakening it. Deep in his heart he already knows he’s not going to win it. But he just can’t let go of the narcissistic supply (look up the term if you’re not familiar) that a national candidacy brings him. He’s a moth to the flame of fawning fans, and a prisoner of his own need for adoration. And he’s surrounded by advisors who are making a profit off his version of socialism and telling him only what he wants to hear to keep him where he is.

He gets more fanatical cheers by tearing down the value of the Obama presidency from the supporters he has already formed in that mold. That two percent of Democrats who resent the Obama administration are a main income source for his campaign and other ventures. It’s a largely white, male and college educated cohort: the sectors of society with the most expendable cash. Every time he pushes that button they send in another $27 donation and double down on their “Bernie or Bust” negativity out in public space.

But for the rest of the field, running nationally is a new and often overwhelming experience, as past candidates can universally testify. Whichever wins the nomination is going to be put through as much trial as Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama had to endure as first-time nominees.

While some Obama Democrats have been particularly harsh on Booker, Castro and Harris in particular due to events of the second night of debates last week, I am of the tendency to chalk up any missteps to rookie mistakes. Running for president is hard! And they’re each new at it.

I take no joy in seeing three otherwise terrific candidates of color get dragged on social media by Obama coalition members otherwise predisposed to like them. But I also observe that the quickness of each of them to clarify and correct is a sign that they did not maliciously intend to besmirch Obama. And it reassures me that when they saw Trump seize on and distort their words at the debate those three, at least immediately “got” why it is so important that they not repeat the mistake again. I don’t believe any of them will.

Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg would also do well to look at and learn from the swiftness of the self-correction by the others. Each of them has, at times, carelessly made statements about the Obama presidency that could, if under similar scrutiny, be distorted and weaponized by Trump and the Republicans. I think this week’s events have put rank-and-file members the Democratic coalition on high lookout to smack down any further eruptions of Obama dissing during these primaries.

While there are always exceptions, most people of color understand a dynamic that most white people don’t get: when you attack one of your own it has the effect of isolating that person and singling them out for further attack by outsiders. It makes the vulnerable more so.

That’s how critiques by Democratic presidential candidates aimed at Joe Biden but centered around policies of his boss of eight years, President Obama – around immigration enforcement, criminal justice and health care – ended up picked up immediately by Donald Trump and made more toxic by him.

Democratic candidates who, whether intentionally or just carelessly, cast shade on Obama administration policies only end up hurting the value of the nomination they are seeking. They make their own possible victory at the convention a Pyrrhic one. Whichever of them wins that nomination will have to run on the strengths and popularity of Obama’s presidency and legacy. Running from it would be madness.

And please don’t tell me that President Obama himself doesn’t care about this or isn’t bothered by it. His most visible surrogates have wasted no time in pushing back on it. Obama’s partner in their organization to end GOP gerrymandering of legislative districts, All On The Line, Eric Holder, doesn’t tweet words like he did about this matter if he’s not on the same page as his good friend and ally: “To my fellow Democrats. Be wary of attacking the Obama record. Build on it. Expand it. But there is little to be gained – for you or the party – by attacking a very successful and still popular Democratic President.”

Frankly, if a Democratic politician doesn’t like a policy or achievement of the Obama administration and blames that on Joe Biden, isn’t that pol just as much to blame for it as Biden could be? They endorsed Obama twice, right? If they were members of Congress, frankly, they had more statutory authority over those policies than a vice president has except at those rare moments he’s needed to break a tie in the Senate. (All the critiques that can be made of Obamacare were about things that happened in Congress, not in the executive branch.)

Every one of these candidates, to show themselves worthy of the nomination, and capable enough to use it to win back the White House, needs to be out selling the Obama presidency as an integral part of their own brand. They need to be reminding people that on every economic metric – job creation, economic growth, and the rest – Obama’s economic indicators outperformed Trump’s, that the intentional pain Trump is causing immigrants, nonwhite Americans, women, health care patients, members of the LGBTQ communities, non-evangelical Christians, and working and poor Americans was not happening by malicious intent under Obama’s watch, that on every front things are far worse and harmful today because of the Trump presidency. Building up Obama’s is precisely the key to ending Trump’s.

Ignore the aforementioned two percent of Democrats who are the Obama haters. Isolate and never amplify their voices. Starve them of the attention they seek. Counter the fictions and half-truths they spout with truth and correction. And always remember: they may be loud and annoying but they are only two percent. Most Americans know it already and the vast majority of Democrats who will vote in the caucuses and primaries know it.

And Joe Biden sure knows it. He knows that every time any rival can be painted as attacking Obama or his presidency that puts more voters in his camp. And if you think someone else would be a better nominee or president, you’d best adapt and correct like the candidates themselves are doing now that they’ve had some fair pushback.

Anyone who has read a sampling of my observations of the 2020 candidates to date knows I’ve not been a Biden booster nor a believer in his inevitability as nominee. If anything I’ve devoted far more column inches to lifting up some of his biggest rivals, including Harris and Warren. I want to see them, too, defend and promote the Obama legacy with the same force and passion that Joe Biden does it. That’s the only path anyone has to the nomination.

Nobody else seeking the Democratic nomination is going to win it by running from Obama’s legacy. Those who insist otherwise will unwittingly hand the nomination to Biden and maybe reelection to Trump (as happened in 2016), whether by intent or not. Going forward this will be an overlying dynamic of the 2020 Democratic primaries. Our candidates have self-corrected quickly already. Their supporters would all do well to not waste time in following their lead.

Finally, tomorrow is Barack Obama’s 58th birthday. (You know what to do, candidates!) Happy birthday, Mr. President.

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