The next Obama: Democrats grapple with the former president's legacy

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Obama may have left office nearly three years ago, but his presence — and the legacy he left from running two successful presidential campaigns — looms over the 2020 race, with many of the Democrats looking to retake his old job by attempting to lay claim to portions of the Obama mantle.

How to approach Obama’s eight years in office has become a complicated question for Democratic presidential candidates. While at times some of the them have seemingly tried to out-Obama each other with their reverence for the last president, there have been flashes of discord between the candidates over the former president’s legacy.

The second Democratic debate in July was the highlight of the anti-Obama sentiment inside the 2020 race, with a host of candidates questioning the former President’s immigration and health care policy. The arguments have been of pragmatism vs. progressivism and show how some liberals in the party believe the former president didn’t do enough in office.

Then there are Democrats like Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan, who ended his campaign and endorsed Joe Biden this month, and recently warned Democrats of focusing too closely on Obama suggesting comparing candidates to the former president belies that “every election is unique.”

Walking the tightrope of embracing a former popular president and giving your own take on the positive vision for the future is tricky,” said Jen Psaki, Obama’s former White House communications director. But “Obama remains the most popular Democrat today, so for any candidate to run on building and building beyond his legacy is smart.”

The internal debate is evidence of a party coming to grips with how three years out of power — and the rise of President Donald Trump, a figure singularly different than the former President — has changed the Democratic Party. While the lines at the second debate helped candidates score points on Biden, there was quick blowback from some Democratic activists and operatives, further proof of Obama’s rock-solid popularity inside the Democratic Party.

Obama, for his part, has urged candidates to find their own balance of acknowledging what his administration accomplished and building beyond his record, telling donors at a high-priced confab earlier this month that he hopes candidates build beyond what he accomplished because that “is the whole point.”

“I built off the process other people made,” he said last week. “And tried to take the baton and run the race a little further and then I expect people to take the baton from me and then I want them to run it a little further from that”.

But Obama’s advice also came with a warning. The former President told the candidates to “pay some attention to where voters actually are,” warning them about going so far on certain policies that they become out of step with voters.

“Even as we push the envelope and we are bold in our vision, we also have to be rooted in reality,” Obama said, adding that candidates should not think “if you get so far out and you think automatically people will follow because ‘look at how bold and creative I am.'”

Advisers to some of the moderate candidates cheered these comments, viewing them as an indictment of liberal leaders like Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.

Obama’s decision to make a rare comment on the 2020 race has further complicated his standing in the primary. Warren, for example, entirely dodged a question about the comments, instead choosing to laud the former President.

Obama’s outspokenness is likely to continue, too, as the former president is slated to keep a full schedule this week and in the coming months. Obama gave the keynote address of the annual Greenbuild International Conference on Wednesday in Atlanta, the same day as the debate, and will next travel to San Francisco, where he will headline a top-dollar fundraiser for the Democratic National Committee and give remarks.

Who can claim the Obama mantle?

Biden is — by far — the candidate with the clearest claim to the Obama mantle. He was the president’s number two, stood by him for eight years and mentions him often on the campaign trail, regularly using what the duo accomplished in office as a way to explain why voters should back him in 2020.

And conversations with his supporters show how important his time with Obama — and the fact that the former president worked with him for eight years — is to his presidential bid.

Karen Macias, a 30-year old Nevada voter born in Mexico but raised in Las Vegas, is leaning toward Biden/

“That is a huge part of the reason. … I am assuming because he worked with him in the past, he will do a lot of things like him,” said Macias, who has lived in Las Vegas since 2000. “It’s the biggest reason why I would vote for him.”

That was echoed by Rev. Jerome Lewis, the 56-year old reverend of a black Christian church in Las Vegas.

“I think Obama had seen something in him, to where he said if I am not here, you can do it,” Lewis said. “That is what I like about it, that Obama had faith in him. Of all the candidates he could have picked, he chose Biden.”

But what Biden has in actually connections to the former president, the 76-year old Democrat lacks in the kind of newness and excitement that propelled Obama in 2008.

If Biden is the candidate most closely tied to Obama, Patrick is the newly minted candidate most similar to the former President.

Obama and Patrick are close friends and the former Massachusetts governor called the former president to get advice on his late entry 2020 bid. Patrick’s first campaign for governor in 2006 was helmed by political consultants David Axelrod and David Plouffe, who would later go on to work for Obama, and Patrick’s slogan — “Together We Can” — was seen as a precursor to Obama’s hopeful message in 2008.

More than that, though, the two share similar personal stories. Obama, throughout his career, has been tied to the South Side of Chicago and his presidential library is slated to be built in the neighborhood he moved to after college. But Patrick’s ties to the area are even deeper: He was born and raised in the South Side of Chicago and only left when he received a scholarship to attend the prestigious Milton Academy in Massachusetts.

Despite that, Patrick said Sunday that he thinks this moment calls for something different than what Obama offered.

“I think President Obama was a terrific president. He’s been a friend and was a friend along a long time before he was in any public office. And I supported him from the beginning,” Patrick said. “But I also think that the moment demands something different from whomever our next president is and will get from me.”

Where Biden and Patrick have actual ties to Obama, South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg appears to be the candidate that voters most often compare to the former President.

The mayor, at 37 years old, is young, offers a historic candidacy and running against the standard politics, three things Obama had over his opponents in 2008. Buttigieg’s campaign has leaned into the Obama comparisons, and his supporters often draw those parallels.

“It’s the intelligence, it’s the cool composure, it’s the ability to be presidential,” said Terri Hale, an Iowa activist who backed Obama in 2008 and is now backing Buttigieg. “The energy, the excitement and the positivity and the hope, that is what I feel at events for Pete. And I gave not felt that since Barack Obama.”

Unlike the nation’s first black president, though, Buttigieg’s existential struggle as a candidate is his inability to win black voters, something that did not hamper Obama but could sink the mayor’s candidacy given how important vlack voters are to the Democratic Party.

People close to Obama have skeptically watched the candidates struggle with the former president legacy, with one source close to Obama telling CNN that “the irony of trying to fashion yourself as the next Obama is that Obama had this incredible sense of self, he knew who he was and had a level of authenticity that voters responded to.”

Axelrod, Obama’s longtime top adviser, said “seizing the Obama mantle and record is fundamental” for Biden, while others are “claiming the spirit is, at a minimum, a box to check” because of Obama’s outsized popularity inside the party.

“Underneath,” Axelrod said, “there is the same tension that existed when Obama first ran, between those who argue for dramatic, defiant change and those who argue for change by forging consensus a big, diverse democracy requires.”

CNN’s Jeff Zeleny contributed to this report.

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