Since leaving office, former President Barack Obama has experienced a boost in public opinion, and his post-presidency approval rating is especially strong among Democrats. That popularity could make him a powerful surrogate on the 2020 campaign trail, and he has been meeting with many of the Democrats who are or may be running for president. Perhaps, given his venerated status within the party, we’ll see candidates try to link themselves to his legacy in the same way that Republicans have done for years with former President Ronald Reagan.
But what does it mean to embrace Obama’s legacy? Political conditions in the country — and within the Democratic Party — have changed since he was elected in 2008. There are more candidates running and the field is both more liberal and more diverse. That said, most candidates can still claim to be a successor to Obama in some way. Unpacking Obama’s presidency is complicated, but here’s a look at what carrying on aspects of his legacy could mean and which candidates may try to lay claim to it.
The party is still moving to the left
Before Obama, the Democratic Party had been floundering. After the party experienced landslide losses in the 1980s and lost control of Congress in 1994, many Democrats embraced a centrist strategy. This meant candidates hedged on marriage equality, calling instead for civil unions, and avoided the word “liberal” in an effort to be seen as moderate. Obama didn’t change all of that, but he did change some of it.
As William Galston of the Brookings Institution explained, Obama tended to combine liberal priorities like health care reform with a willingness to compromise on the execution. For instance, to get the Affordable Care Act through Congress, he and the party dropped a public insurance option that had been included in early versions of the bill. This didn’t make him a centrist — he still ushered in sweeping health care reform, a decades-old priority for Democrats — but it did mean that his approach was tempered by what he thought he could realistically get passed. Perhaps Sen. Cory Booker is the best example of Obama’s pragmatism among the current 2020 hopefuls, as he favors big, sweeping legislation like “Medicare for All,” in which the government would fund health care all Americans, but he has also shown himself willing to work across the aisle to get things done, as in the case of a bipartisan criminal justice reform bill passed last December.
But liberal pragmatism might be the aspect of Obama’s legacy that 2020 presidential candidates are least eager to embrace. The party has decidedly moved to the left in the last 11 years. Sen. Bernie Sanders is campaigning on free college tuition, a $15 minimum wage and Medicare for All. Sen. Elizabeth Warren has proposed a plan to “break up big tech,” aimed at companies like Google, Amazon and Facebook. And now only a handful of candidates, like Sen. Amy Klobuchar, are being identified as part of the primaries’ “center lane.” Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke and Obama’s own former Vice President Joe Biden might also fall into this category if they run, as both of them, like Klobuchar, have a more moderate voting record than Sanders and Warren.
Obama’s presidency illustrated how pragmatic liberalism can score both electoral and policy wins. But it also helps explain why some in the Democratic coalition are disillusioned with the pragmatic approach. The administration frustrated activists by continuing the wars in the Middle East, failing to press further on economic inequality or the environment, and deporting undocumented immigrants. And despite not pursuing a full-throated leftist agenda, the Democratic Party still lost big in the 2010 and 2014 midterms. Obama’s full legacy might be that he exposed both the advantages and the pitfalls of a cautious, pragmatic approach.
Obama opened the door for other firsts
The fact that Obama was the country’s first black president is a big part of his legacy. After Obama, the Oval Office appeared to be open to groups who had not managed to get very close to the presidency before, such as women and nonwhite people. The party embraced that aspect of his legacy when it nominated Hillary Clinton in 2016, making her the first female presidential nominee on a major-party ticket, and the diversity of the current Democratic field this year is a continuation of that.
But there are many different kinds of historic firsts, and not all marginalized groups play an equal role in the Democratic Party. African-American voters are a crucial constituency and a loyal voting bloc for the party. In this regard, Booker — who is sometimes compared to Obama — would not be a historic first but would instead carry on the Obama legacy by driving home the idea that a party dependent on black votes is prepared to elevate African-Americans to positions of power and to address issues important to that constituency. But some of the other candidates in the field would make for historic firsts. Many Democratic voters await the first woman president, and the Democratic field already includes candidates like Klobuchar, Warren and Sen. Kamala Harris, whose black and Indian heritage would make her the first South Asian nominee, and whose candidacy would, like Booker’s, speak to the importance of black voices in the party. Sanders would be the first Jewish presidential nominee at the top of the ticket,1 and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg would the first openly gay person to win a major party’s nomination or the presidency.
But there’s another side to Obama’s legacy as the first African-American president — deepened racial polarization. Research shows that race drove political divisions in 2016, with racial attitudes accounting for some voters’ decisions to switch from Democrat to Republican between 2012 and 2016. A few Democrats have implied that the “safe” choice for 2020 is to go back to nominating white men — Biden has been mentioned in this regard. It’s also worth noting that Obama’s own aides, including former senior adviser David Axelrod, have talked about O’Rourke as a potential candidate in Obama’s image, and Obama himself mentioned Buttigieg as a rising star in the Democratic Party. This opens up questions about how different people within the party view Obama’s legacy: Some place emphasis on his identity, while some focus instead on his ideas. Others wonder if it’s even possible to separate the two.
Obama was a political outsider
Well, sort of an outsider. Obama’s claim to outsider politics was in many ways relative. In 2008, he was a freshman senator running against Clinton, who, in addition to having been First Lady and a two-term senator, had been the establishment favorite for years. In that context, it wasn’t that hard for Obama to position himself as the outsider.
But the main contenders for 2020 so far are pretty prominent senators, several of whom have been on lists of presidential possibilities for some time now. Without a clear establishment favorite, it’s hard for someone with the political resume of Harris, Booker or Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand to make a full-throated outsider claim. Warren, by contrast, has embraced a populist message and, prior to running for Senate, worked as an academic, not a politician. Likewise, Sanders ran as an outsider in 2016, a claim bolstered by his formal affiliation as an independent but strained by his multi-decade career in Congress; that claim might be even harder to sell this year. A few Western governors, including Jay Inslee and John Hickenlooper, may have better luck at portraying themselves as political outsiders. Hickenlooper has already made some Obama-esque appeals, touting his ability to bridge the gap between the parties and to solve problems that have stymied politicians inside the Beltway.
In the end, the most important aspect of Obama’s legacy — more important than being an outsider, a pragmatist or a historic first — may be his charisma, his ability to inspire voters with crowd-stirring speeches. Currently, O’Rourke, Harris and Sanders stand out in the Democratic field as possible heirs to Obama in this regard. But no matter who wins the nomination, chances are they’ll be able to link their candidacy to Obama’s legacy in one way or another.