POLITICS
03/15/2019 12:00 EDT | Updated 03/15/2019 16:39 EDT

Joe Biden And The Battle To Be Barack Obama’s Heir

2020 candidates are fighting to claim the ex-president’s legacy, even as some progressives are ready to move on.

ASSOCIATED PRESS
Former Vice President Joe Biden's walk-out music before speaking to the International Association of Fire Fighters this week provided a hint to his 2020 strategy.

WASHINGTON ― It’s a bit of a cliche for a politician to use Bruce Springsteen as their walk-out music, but former Vice President Joe Biden wasn’t looking to shatter any stereotypes on Tuesday morning, when he strolled onto the stage in a Capitol Hill hotel basement to the sounds of “We Take Care of Our Own” and a hearty standing ovation from the nearly 1,000 firefighters waving “Run Joe Run” signs.

In case you can’t separate “We Take Care of Our Own” from the other vaguely patriotic Springsteen-penned working-class anthems politicians have adopted over the years, it’s the same song President Barack Obama used as his walk-out music during his successful 2012 re-election bid. But Biden, who never mentioned Obama’s name directly during his 20-minute address to the International Association of Fire Fighters, is hoping you remember the connection.

Biden, 76, is expected to officially launch a presidential bid soon. He’s one of a host of declared or undeclared candidates for the 2020 Democratic nomination to challenge President Donald Trump who is competing to create that Obama feeling. The former president is unlikely to endorse anyone, leaving Biden, former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, California Sen. Kamala Harris and others in a scramble to convince voters that they best embody the spirit of the man who remains the Democratic Party’s most popular figure.

To be clear, it’s unlikely any candidate will emerge to inspire the same euphoria across the Democratic Party’s factions that Obama does. “You’re not going to fool South Carolina voters into thinking you’re the second coming,” said Bakari Sellers, a former state legislator in that crucial early primary state.

There will be copious political rewards for the winner. A Harvard-Harris poll released earlier this month found that nearly half the party’s electorate self-identifies as “Obama Democrats,” a greater share than any other label and more than double the number who call themselves “progressive,” even as much of the party’s left wing pushes candidates to be more aggressive than Obama. Biden, in many ways, is the leader in the clubhouse.

“Biden is in a league of his own,” said Celinda Lake, a prominent Democratic pollster. “He’s the only one who was Obama’s partner.”

“I think Biden is the perfect combination of Biden and Obama-Biden,” she continued, referring to the former vice president’s ability both to evoke his own upbringing in Scranton, Pennsylvania, to appeal to the oft-discussed white working-class voters, and to invoke his time with the former president to encourage higher black turnout. “He’s got a foot in both worlds in a very real way, in a way that’s powerful in uniting the party, and in a way that’s powerful in generating momentum against Trump.”

The Obama ‘Shield’

Biden’s potential liabilities are numerous and well-documented. He’s old at a time when Democratic voters are looking for fresh faces. In opposition research terms, there are votes and quotes aplenty from his 30 years in the Senate for journalists and political rivals to resurface and damage him politically, from his support for the invasion of Iraq to his opposition to school desegregation via busing to his claims of authorship over a 1990s-era crime bill that progressives blame for putting mass incarceration on steroids.

But Biden’s Senate record was complete when Obama selected him to be vice president, and that could be a powerful way for him to dismiss progressive critiques now. During an appearance on CNN on Tuesday, veteran Democratic operative Paul Begala suggested Biden use Obama’s decision to put him on the ticket as a “shield.” 

Bloomberg via Getty Images
President Barack Obama gave Biden the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2017. In the future, the president could also give him political cover.

“I have a long record, Jake, and I’m glad your opposition researchers have reviewed it,” Begala said to host Jake Tapper, scripting a debate answer Biden could use. “You know who reviewed it more carefully? Barack Obama.”

Other Democratic strategists aren’t sure that would keep progressives at bay. “He has more legitimacy because he was the vice president of the most popular recent Democratic president. But he’s also not Barack Obama,” said Rebecca Katz, a progressive strategist. “When you’re running at the top of the ticket, you have to put your record on display.”

Another national Democratic pollster, granted anonymity to speak candidly about one of his party’s most popular officials, said Biden’s ties to Obama would be a “depreciating asset” in the campaign.

“Waking up every day and getting hit by a new quote from the [Wilmington News Journal] in 1974 is not a fun way to run a campaign,” the strategist said. “It’s easy to overstate how the Obama connection can bat this stuff away.”

Still, there’s an obvious link between Obama and the former vice president in voters’ minds. “He’s going to get a lot of benefit from being Obama’s best friend,” Sellers said.

One participant in a recent focus group of black female primary voters in South Carolina suggested Biden was the closest the United States could get to a third Obama term without electing former first lady Michelle Obama. And Obama’s decision, along with Biden’s eight years living at the Naval Observatory, would help him quickly bypass any initial questions primary voters might ask about his readiness to be president.

In his speech to the firefighters on Tuesday, Biden didn’t sound like a man worried about the primary. In his most political moment, he took aim at Trump with a straightforward economic-contrast attack ripped directly from his and Obama’s 2012 playbook. 

“Did you see the budget that was introduced? It cuts $845 billion. Almost a trillion-dollar cut in Medicare,” Biden said. “Why? Because of a tax cut for the super wealthy that created a deficit of $1.9 trillion, and now they’ve got to make somebody pay for it.”

More Than One Way To Be Obama

POOL New / Reuters
California Sen. Kamala Harris has been drawing comparisons to Obama for at least eight years.

But proximity to the real thing isn’t the be-all, end-all. Harris has been dubbed “the female Obama” since at least her victory in California’s attorney general race in 2010, and her biography and background ― mixed-race, with a portion of her youth spent growing up outside the United States ― recall the 44th president’s. Booker, meanwhile, has drawn comparisons to the first African-American president since his time as mayor of Newark, and his supporters openly muse about recreating the president’s political coalitions in both the primary and general elections. Booker’s rhetoric, heavy on talk of unity and togetherness, can often sound like he’s trying to outdo Obama’s “hope and change” mantra of 2008.

Jim Demers, the chair of Booker’s New Hampshire operation, has been eager to compare the two men, dubbing the Garden State senator “Obama 2.0.”

“All of the candidates need to be careful that we don’t become the Democratic alternative to Trump,” Demers said, explaining why he prefers Booker’s Obama-esque rhetoric. “If we think politics is just about getting to 51 percent, we might win an election. But it doesn’t leave you in a good position to govern.”

Lake noted that almost every candidate can compete to replicate at least one part of Obama’s image. O’Rourke, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and even South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg will likely attempt to become the preferred candidate of young people in the same way Obama was. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren ― who was a senior adviser to Obama while helping create the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau ― can battle with O’Rourke and Sanders to capture the 2008 campaign’s good-government revolutionary spirit. Biden, Harris and Booker will likely all seek to dominate among the Southern black voters who were instrumental in Obama’s eventual defeat of then-New York Sen. Hillary Clinton.

‘A Powerful Reference For Democratic Voters’

The Club for Growth, a well-heeled conservative group, may have provided the best evidence of Obama’s centrality to the Democratic primary. Earlier this week, it rolled out a two-minute television ad attacking O’Rourke in Iowa. Its chosen message? He’s nothing like Obama. The spot unfavorably compares O’Rourke to Obama at every stage of the two men’s adult lives, concluding that O’Rourke “drips with white male privilege.”

David McIntosh, the group’s president and a former Republican congressman from Indiana, said the group decided to target O’Rourke after their polling showed him tied with Trump in a head-to-head matchup in Texas.

“It’s a powerful reference for Democratic voters about the type of candidate they want,” he said of the Club’s decision to invoke a president the group spent years attacking. “[O’Rourke] is selling himself as a man of the people, but before he ran for Senate, he was a typical politician out for himself. We thought it was important to tell that story in a way that would resonate with Democratic primary voters.” (Not every Republican was as enthusiastic about the ad: One national GOP strategist feared it would just draw attention to O’Rourke, who Republicans consider one of the strongest potential challengers to Trump. “He’s going to be popular enough in Iowa that he could run for governor instead of president,” the strategist lamented.)

O’Rourke began to draw comparisons to Obama during his Senate run, with commentators remarking on his youth, his post-partisan but still liberal messaging, his success raising tens of millions of dollars online and the size of his rally crowds. It peaked with a donor declaring: “He’s Barack Obama, but white.”

O’Rourke isn’t exactly running from the comparisons. Parts of his launch video, unveiled on Thursday, could’ve been dropped line for line into Obama’s famous 2004 Democratic National Convention speech. (The Onion mocked the similarities with a story on how O’Rourke, a former rock musician, was launching an “Obama cover campaign.”)

“We’ve never been more divided or polarized, more driven by partisanship,” O’Rourke says in the video. “We need to come together. Damn the differences. Find the things that we share in common. And go after it and get it done.”

But while Obama’s campaigns were precision-oriented and methodical, O’Rourke aims to embrace a punk rock-inspired DIY ethic ― he told Vanity Fair he idolized Fugazi frontman Ian MacKaye ― that eschews the heavy planning that went into nearly every step Obama took. 

“There was never a question about Obama’s depth,” said Sellers, the former South Carolina legislator. He scoffed at comparisons between O’Rourke and Obama, noting that the El Paso native’s website has plenty of merchandise but no policy page. “To reduce Barack Obama to charisma is to devalue him.”

‘The Movement Doesn’t Think That Playbook Works Anymore’

Even as every candidate in the field scrambles to be seen as Obama-esque, the party’s left wing has begun a push to re-evaluate the record and approach of the 44th president, critiquing his foreign policy as militaristic, his antitrust enforcement as tepid and his strategy for dealing with the GOP as ineffective. 

“In this dark time of the Trump administration, the Democratic Party and our country need politicians with moral and political courage,” said Alexandria Rojas, the executive director of Justice Democrats, which backs primary challenges to members of Congress it believes are too moderate for their home districts. “Biden, in particular, represents this generation of Democrats that think the way to beat Republicans is to mimic them. But the movement doesn’t think that playbook works anymore.”

The debate, at this point, is happening mostly among the party’s elites. After the outspoken, left-leaning Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar compared Obama to Trump in a Politico Magazine article last week, she quickly tried to clean up her comments, reflecting how risky it is for a Democratic politician to criticize the former president.

Still, much of the party’s left now cites Obama’s unity-focused rhetoric as a mistake, believing he failed to adequately name and shame the forces, people and entities responsible for growing income inequality and the country’s other woes. “Your answer to Trump can’t just be unity,” Rojas said. “You have to define what that unity means.”

Biden, in his speech to the firefighters, also seemed to fail that test. “When I look around this room, I see the people who built this nation. This country wasn’t built by Wall Street bankers and CEOs and hedge fund managers,” he said, sounding like Warren or Sanders for a moment ― before quickly adding: “They’re not necessarily bad.”

To Rojas, Biden’s failure to adjust to a new progressive reality is a sign of how quickly the party is changing.

“It’s pretty historic that the representative from the latest Democratic administration is already so out of touch with where the party is,” she said.