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Who Will Be The Obama Of 2020?

Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s weekly politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

sarahf (Sarah Frostenson, politics editor): For the last several months, former President Barack Obama has been busy giving advice to 2020 Democratic contenders. He hasn’t endorsed anyone (and may never do so), but who do we think is best positioned to be the next “Obama candidate”? And, more importantly, do we think what worked for Obama in 2008 would work for a 2020 candidate?

julia_azari (Julia Azari, political science professor at Marquette University and FiveThirtyEight contributor): Obama ran in 2008 as (kind of) an outsider but not a populist. But the current crop of candidates isn’t very well-positioned to make outsider claims, as the FiveThirtyEight Politics podcast crew pointed out. Instead, they’re better poised to talk about economic populism.

So that’s a big difference that immediately jumped out to me.

sarahf: Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders are both pushing populist economic policies this cycle. But I’d argue that neither is really in the mold of Obama.

It’s also not clear to me, given that the economy is pretty good right now, how effective a rallying cry it’ll be for 2020. I think there’s an opening for someone like Cory Booker, who’s running on a message of love (which is reminiscent of Obama’s message of hope and change in 2008).

perry (Perry Bacon Jr., senior writer): I tend to think Beto O’Rourke (if he decides to run) and Booker will end up running Obama-like campaigns, appealing to voters with personas as much as their policy agendas. I would put Kamala Harris in this group as well.

Granted, Booker is an insider, not an outsider, but I don’t know how much of an outsider Obama really was — he was a sitting senator in 2008. I do think Booker and Obama share broad themes of trying to unite the country.

O’Rourke also seems to have some of that Obama-like charisma — people are begging him to run for president, but I suspect they don’t know a lot about his record.

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): Not to interrupt but are we … underestimating how much Obama was about personality rather than policy in 2008? Not that he isn’t a substantive guy. But I’m old enough to remember the 2008 primaries. And there were not a hell of a lot of rigorous debates over policy.

julia_azari: That’s fair, Nate. But it’s complicated. Obama’s bid, especially against Hillary Clinton, was about personality. Not a ton of policy difference there.

But his presidency was a lot of reacting to big issues and problems — the economy, of course, but also the Arab Spring. And police violence against unarmed African-Americans became a major national issue.

So when we ask about Obama’s legacy, are we asking about his 2008 run or his presidency?

sarahf: That’s a good point, Julia. If we look at Obama’s presidency, I’d argue that parts of the Democratic Party don’t want someone who replicates Obama’s more consensus-based approach. Many, especially on the Left, wish he’d gone farther on issues, which is why we’re debating “Medicare-for-all” right now and not, say, how to save the Affordable Care Act.

perry: I think it’s clear that Sanders and Warren are not running in the Obama mold.

They can’t say that — because Obama is so popular among Democrats, and Sanders did not do well in 2016 with black voters, who both love Obama and are an important constituency in the party. But privately, the Sanders supporters I talk to think Obama was a fine but underwhelming president.

natesilver: Publicly, there are a VERY few vocal Bernie supporters who think Obama was a bad president. And it’s probably a minority of Sanders supporters who think that, but it’s still out there.

julia_azari: So I was thinking about this when I read Nate’s piece about the “five corners” of the Democratic primary. The piece is right that Obama won with black voters, Latino voters and young voters — and that the Left didn’t really have a candidate in 2008. But I am also not sure the Left was even a thing in 2008.

It really took Warren, Sanders and the Occupy movement, along with slow economic recovery and some activism around issues of racial marginalization (like Black Lives Matter), to shape the Left as we know it.

perry: Also, Dan Pfeiffer, a former Obama adviser, has been encouraging Beto O’Rourke to get into the race. David Axelrod, another former Obama advisers, has been praising Pete Buttigieg, who has also gotten praise from Obama himself. (How many mayors are getting shout-outs from Obama?) So that gives you some sense of how people who were deeply involved in Obama’s 2008 campaign see the 2020 race.

natesilver: Yeah, the Obama people themselves are quite pro-Beto. Especially the Obama people who didn’t move on to work for the Hillary Clinton campaign in some capacity.

perry: Obama got some credit from liberal activists in 2008 for being opposed to the Iraq War, but I don’t think the Left was as organized then.

And it didn’t have obvious champions who were strong candidates. Now, the Left has Warren, Sanders and other candidates who are taking fairly liberal positions (like Harris).

julia_azari: I’d call Beto and Buttigieg the closest we have to “outsiders” in the race. Well, them and Tulsi Gabbard.

natesilver: Gabbard and Obama both have the Hawaii thing going on. Is she the new Obama?

perry: I agree with the idea that Beto is something of an outsider. He was in Congress, but I feel like he barely registered there. I literally don’t think I have ever covered him doing anything important on Capitol Hill.

sarahf: It’s interesting that no one is connecting Obama and Amy Klobuchar. Is it because she’s too much of a Washington insider?

natesilver: Both Klobuchar and Obama are very Midwestern, I say as someone from the Midwest.

perry: She is not particularly charismatic or inspiring. Yes, we have a FiveThirtyEight measurement for that :)

julia_azari: Is being charismatic an important part of Obama’s legacy?

natesilver: With Klobuchar, the problem is that she goes too far in the direction of pragmatism, whereas Obama tried (and often succeeded) to have it both ways in terms of projecting both pragmatism and idealism.

perry: Agree.

Obama was maybe center-left on policy, but his message was never really, “We can’t do this” — which is what Klobuchar keeps saying about a lot of big Democratic initiatives. She is not exactly hope and change. She is pragmatism. She even uses the phrase “pragmatic progressive” to describe herself.

julia_azari: A great example of this is the comment she made at a CNN townhall this week about the idea of free college for everyone. After saying she was against it, Klobuchar said: “If I was a magic genie and could give that to everyone and we could afford it, I would.” That was on every podcast I listened to this morning.

Another thing I’ve been thinking about that I haven’t seen in any of the candidates is that Obama had this very strong sense of history when he talked, particularly about race. He talked a fair amount about founding ideals. Because the current moment feels so pressing and Trump gives Democratic hopefuls such an obvious foil, I don’t have the sense that this is happening as much this time around.

natesilver: 2007-08 was fairly pressing too, though. With the financial crisis unfolding.

perry: I think Warren and Sanders are trying to tell stories and narratives, but about the economy. I don’t know that Booker or Harris can tell the story about race in America through the lens of being a black person in a compelling way, because Obama has done that.

I think we are agreeing that being an Obama-like candidate is not necessarily linked to being black. I agree with that to some extent — maybe 85 percent — but I have also watched voters tell Booker, “I like you, you sound like Obama.” And that is certainly related to Booker being black.

natesilver: And that’s one area — the sense of history and how it affected him personally –on which Beto, in particular, falls flat relative to Obama. He’s coming from a fairly privileged upbringing, so his personal “journey” isn’t likely to be all that compelling.

julia_azari: Another question I have is whether those stories will be more important in a crowded field — where differentiation is at a premium — or less important as who the hell can remember anything about anyone?

perry: The narrative that Warren and Sanders are telling is distinct. The other candidates are saying that what is wrong in the U.S. is largely about Trump, but those two are setting themselves apart by saying the villain is the wealthy or the 1 percent. That will matter to voters on the Left.

But Harris, as she was about to start her formal campaign, spoke extensively about her mother. I wonder if that resonated much with voters, with so much else going on in the news. I doubt it.

natesilver: Maybe we’re not talking enough about Booker? His period as mayor of Newark feels a lot like Obama’s time as a community organizer, in terms of how he’s trying to shape his narrative.

One of the things that was relatively distinctive about Obama was that he embraced his urbanness, when presidents typically come from more rural or suburban areas.

Booker has been trying to do the same thing.

perry: I think Booker is obviously in the Obama mold. You could even argue that Obama was in the Booker mold. (Booker was famous first, to some extent.)

julia_azari: But it seems to me like the Booker-Obama comparison is vulnerable to ham-handed comparisons about them both being younger black men.

natesilver: Yeah — if people are looking at race, are they going to think that the Booker-Obama comparison is too on the nose? Like, you want to be Obama-ish or Obama-adjacent, but not too much like Obama.

julia_azari: I also wonder what it means for white men like O’Rourke or Buttigieg to be positioned as the inheritors of the Obama legacy. That seems to me to be a sign of a conscious effort to craft an Obama legacy that’s not about race or identity. (Though Buttigieg is gay, and I don’t want to downplay the significance of that.)

sarahf: So what would it mean then if Joe Biden were to enter the field? He was Obama’s vice president. Does proximity to Obama matter when it comes to being the “Obama candidate”?

perry: I don’t know. I tend to think that Biden’s waiting to make a decision about running is connected to the fact that he will likely not be a big favorite if he gets into the race. I think he assumes (like I do) that lots of people who voted for Obama aren’t going to vote for him.

natesilver: Also, the fact that Obama is meeting with all 73 other Democratic candidates seems like it’s not great news for Biden.

julia_azari: If Biden were to enter the race, it would focus questions on Obama’s legacy, because that would have to be part of Biden’s political story. It would definitely open him up for attack from the other candidates and make the idea of an “Obama candidate” more contested.

perry: I tend to think liberal Democrats in particular will find plenty of ways to attack Biden that will have nothing to do with Obama. Obama was young, something of an outsider and non-white, but Biden is none of those things. It will be easy for other candidates to suggest that they, not Biden, are the “Obama candidate” for 2020.

And I think the answer is intuitive when the question is: Who is more like the “Obama candidate,” Biden or Harris? (Harris.)

sarahf: But how much does it matter if a candidate is like Obama if the goal is to just select someone who can beat Trump?

perry: That’s a good question, but it may overlook how many different groups of people Obama won over. Obama managed to do somewhat well among white, non-college voters in the Midwest and get high turnout among African-Americans.

Is there anyone in this field who can do that?

natesilver: I mean …. maayyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyybe Booker? I’m much more bullish on Harris’s chances overall, but Booker has a reputation as being a little bit better as a retail politician.

julia_azari: The question also matters as to Obama’s eventual legacy, which is something that will be of importance to a lot of people — some of whom aren’t even professional presidential scholars!

perry: In some ways, the question of who will be the next Obama is quite relevant to electability considerations.


julia_azari: Yeah, the ability to build a coalition like Obama is the more pressing concern.

And in 2008, Obama did two things in terms of the electoral map that I think are notable: (1) He had a strong showing in the Midwest (he won Wisconsin by 14 percentage points and (2) he made a dent in some Republican areas (North Carolina, Virginia and Indiana).

perry: A 2020 version of Obama’s 2008 victory might be: getting big turnout among Asian, black and Latino voters, flipping Arizona and Georgia blue, nearly winning Texas, and carrying Wisconsin and Michigan, because those states are swingy.

julia_azari: And that’s a continuation, in some ways, of a kind of ad hoc Electoral College strategy, rather than a fundamental change.

sarahf: Or an example of successful coalition-building as you all mentioned. Any last thoughts?

julia_azari: I just want to reiterate that this is an important question about the direction of one of the two major parties and about the legacy of the first African-American president.

(And since I’m writing about it, not at all self-serving!)

natesilver: I do think electability was a pretty big part of the Obama brand in 2008. There was a lot of subtle and not-so-subtle messaging to suggest that he could expand the map more than Hillary Clinton could.

And remember, Obama was very popular in 2008, at least at the start of the campaign, even among independents and some moderate Republicans.

perry: I kind of think the search for the next Obama will end up like the search for the next Bill Clinton (a Southern centrist) that happened from, say, 2001 to 2007 (John Edwards, Mark Warner, etc.). The next great Democratic candidate will be his or her own thing — a person who builds a multiracial coalition (because that’s who the Democrats are), but in a way that is distinct from what Obama did. O’Rourke, Harris and Klobuchar are all distinct from Obama — Warren and Sanders are even more so.

natesilver: It’s hard to win the Democratic primary — or to win the general election as a Democrat — without building a multiracial coalition. Which is why I wonder if Obama isn’t the new normal.

From ABC News:

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

Perry Bacon Jr. is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Julia Azari is an associate professor of political science at Marquette University and a Distinguished Visiting Scholar at the John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress. Her research interests include the American presidency, political parties and political rhetoric. She is the author of “Delivering the People’s Message: The Changing Politics of the Presidential Mandate.”

Sarah Frostenson is FiveThirtyEight’s politics editor.