The Democrats who want to be president can’t quite figure out how to talk about the most popular figure in their party. Former president Barack Obama casts a long shadow over the 2020 primary campaign: Preserving Obama’s legacy is the heart of former vice president Joe Biden’s pitch to voters — which has allowed his rivals to mark him as complacent. More left-leaning candidates, such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), say the next president needs to do more to push for health-care reforms and combat income inequality — but lately, she’s struggling to sell her proposals. Onetime Obama Cabinet secretary Julián Castro has ripped his former boss’s record on immigration and deportation. Meanwhile, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg raced to have a reporter correct a story that misquoted him citing “failures of the Obama era.” Sen. Kamala Harris (Calif.) said in Wednesday’s debate that it’s crucial to “rebuild the Obama coalition” because “that’s the last time we won.” Picking and choosing which parts of Obama’s tenure to embrace, and how firmly to embrace them, has become a delicate game in the primary season.
And now Obama himself is working to cool down what he sees as an overheated political climate. In October, at a panel discussion for his foundation, he warned against the pitfalls of “woke” cancel culture, telling a gathering of young activists that “if all you’re doing is casting stones, you’re probably not going to get that far.” This month, at a gathering of influential Democrats, he cautioned the 2020 contenders against pushing too far, too fast on policy: “This is still a country that is less revolutionary than it is interested in improvement.”
That remark helps explain why so many of the candidates’ proposals seem so far to the left of Obama. The former president was skeptical of sweeping change, bullish on markets, sanguine about the use of military force, high on individual responsibility and faithful to a set of old-school personal values. Compare that with proposals from his would-be successors: Medicare-for-all, the Green New Deal, free college, a wealth tax, universal basic income.
Given the political climate, it’s no surprise to see the party’s base clamoring for something dramatic. But the contrast between Obama’s steady approach and the seeming radicalism of his Democratic heirs can’t just be chalked up to changing times. It’s because the former president, going back at least to his 2004 Senate race, hasn’t really occupied the left side of the ideological spectrum. He wasn’t a Republican, obviously: He never professed a desire to starve the federal government, and he opposed the Iraq War, which the GOP overwhelmingly supported. But to the dismay of many on the left, and to the continuing disbelief of many on the right, Obama never dramatically departed from the approach of presidents who came before him.
There’s a simple reason: Barack Obama is a conservative.
Obama’s perspectives don’t line up with every position now seen as right-of-center: He joined the Paris climate accords, he signed the Dodd-Frank financial regulations, and he’s pro-choice. He flip-flopped to supporting same-sex marriage, highlighting the significance of marriage.
But his constant search for consensus, for ways to bring Blue America and Red America together, sometimes led him to policies that used Republican means to achieve more liberal ends. The underlying concept for his signature legislation, the Affordable Care Act, with its individual mandate, was devised by the right-wing Heritage Foundation and first implemented at the state level by Mitt Romney, then the Republican governor of Massachusetts. Obama wanted to protect Americans from the effects of a prolonged recession, so he agreed, in one of his defining votes as a senator, to a bailout of banks — and as president, he prioritized recovery over punishing bankers for their role in the financial crisis. In his first inaugural address, he affirmed the power of the free market “to generate wealth and expand freedom.”
Until the Sandy Hook tragedy in 2012, Obama studiously avoided any push for gun control. Indeed, in his first term, he signed laws that loosened restrictions on bringing firearms to national parks and on Amtrak. Though cast as a “dithering” peacenik who led “from behind,” he stuck with his thesis that the imperative “to end the war in Iraq is to be able to get more troops into Afghanistan,” and he prosecuted a drone war in Somalia, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen.
Obama’s approach to politics was marked by a circumspection that went even deeper than policies. To be conservative, as philosopher Michael Oakeshott, a movement hero, once put it, “is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss.” The former president channeled the sentiment faithfully when he said recently that “the average American doesn’t think that we have to completely tear down the system and remake it.”
He believes, fundamentally, that the American model works — even if it hasn’t been allowed to work for everyone. In some cases, the government should help expand the American Dream to individuals and communities to whom access has been denied. In others, Americans can achieve the dream if only they have the will to surmount obstacles on their own. His second inaugural address was a thoroughly conservative document, underscoring equality of opportunity as opposed to equality of outcome. Republican former House speaker Newt Gingrich praised it at the time, saying, “Ninety-five percent of the speech I thought was classically American, emphasizing hard work, emphasizing self-reliance, emphasizing doing things together.”
Barack Obama on the campaign trail in 2008 with wife Michelle and daughters Malia and Sasha. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)
In his first year in office, Obama gave a back-to-school address that Republicans panned in advance as big-brotherism, even though its central idea turned out to be: “At the end of the day, the circumstances of your life — what you look like, where you come from, how much money you have, what you’ve got going on at home — none of that is an excuse for neglecting your homework or having a bad attitude in school.”
He once argued that in certain circumstances, government programs created welfare dependency, saying that “as somebody who worked in low-income neighborhoods, I’ve seen it, where people weren’t encouraged to work, weren’t encouraged to upgrade their skills, were just getting a check, and over time, their motivation started to diminish.”
In remarks commemorating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, Obama went out of his way to lecture that, after the civil rights era, “what had once been a call for equality of opportunity, the chance for all Americans to work hard and get ahead, was too often framed as a mere desire for government support, as if we had no agency in our own liberation, as if poverty was an excuse for not raising your child, and the bigotry of others was reason to give up on yourself.” You’d never hear that sentiment expressed by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), for whom structural inequality explains nearly every American ill.
Obama cast himself as a role model for young black men and repeatedly stressed that not all inequities in American society are attributable to discrimination, racial or otherwise. This posture helped earn him currency with the black electorate (in particular, older black voters), which votes overwhelmingly for Democrats but skews moderate to conservative on several issues.
He embraced respectability politics as a way to signal how conventional it was to have a first family of color: the many Norman Rockwell-worthy photo-ops, such as the 2009 portrait by Annie Leibovitz, a study in wholesome family living; their annual vacations on Martha’s Vineyard, summer haven of the black elite; dialing back his storied “cool,” as when he displayed his stiff dance moves during an appearance on “Ellen,” laying claim to the mantle of the everyman dad. Asked what he thought about Kanye West interrupting Taylor Swift’s 2009 MTV Video Music Awards acceptance speech to shower praise on Beyoncé, Obama offered no mitigating analysis, saying simply, “He’s a jackass.”
Obama called out racism in the criminal justice system. He met with Black Lives Matter activists, and his Justice Department used consent decrees to rein in police departments. For this, right-wing media often portrayed him as a cop-hater; former Milwaukee County sheriff David Clarke, a Fox News fixture, called him “the most anti-cop president I have ever seen.” But the president routinely extolled law enforcement, including at the 2015 convention of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, when he said: “I reject any narrative that seeks to divide police and communities that they serve. I reject a story line that says when it comes to public safety, there’s an ‘us’ and a ‘them.’ ” After George Zimmerman’s acquittal, Obama — who said that “Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago” — defended the system, saying “we are a nation of laws, and a jury has spoken.”
For most of his presidency, Obama governed with a Republican Congress dedicated to preventing his reelection and thwarting his agenda. Most efforts entailed compromise. Still, he made bargains that the rhetoric of current Democratic candidates would seem to foreclose. In 2010, Obama and Republicans traded a two-year extension of former president George W. Bush’s tax cuts, along with a payroll tax holiday and an extension of unemployment benefits, that paved the way for the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” He later agreed to the Budget Control Act of 2011, known as “sequestration,” which brought down year-to-year deficits by slashing federal spending in exchange for GOP votes to raise the debt ceiling.
Obama was a believer in big government, but his views showed many similarities to those of Republican presidents like Theodore Roosevelt, who fought corporate monopolies and later led the Progressive Party; Dwight D. Eisenhower, who signed the Civil Rights Act of 1957 and the Federal Aid Highway Act, creating the interstate highway system; and establishment archetype George H.W. Bush, a veteran of Congress, the United Nations and the CIA who broke his “no new taxes” pledge, rescued savings and loans, and declared an import ban on semiautomatic rifles.
Obama did advance priorities that progressives cheered: He tripled the number of women on the Supreme Court. He announced rules imposing limits on oil and gas emissions and an aggressive plan limiting coal-fired power plant emissions. He supported anti-discrimination protections for LGBT employees and introduced rules that protected some young undocumented immigrants from deportation. (He achieved many of these policies through executive fiat, meaning they could be — or have already been — easily reversed.) But none of these changes revolutionized governance or structurally reordered American life. None of them were meant to.
The difficulty Democratic candidates have in grappling with Obama reflects the dissonance he’s generated for a decade: The center-left adores him, but to the far left, he’s a sellout. He’s being rethought on the center-right, but he remains the bete noire of the far right, which morphed from the (putatively) government-hating tea party wing to a strongman-loving core.
It’s largely due to an enduring misunderstanding of what Obama represented. Notwithstanding the “Change we can believe in” slogan that propelled his rise, his aim was never to turn things upside down. Favoring “the familiar to the unknown,” as Oakeshott wrote, was Obama’s disposition and also his political project: expanding traditional priorities — the familiar American Dream, not a reconceived one — to Americans for whom they had been denied. That meant building, gradually and at times almost reverently, on his predecessors’ foundation.
That has forced Democrats to sort out who they are — and how to fuse Obama’s appeal with an agenda that reaches further than he ever tried, or intended, to go.