- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 9, 2014

The 2016 Democratic presidential field is likely to run to the left of President Obama, partly because candidates will try to distance themselves from his political baggage while jockeying for an increasingly liberal base of voters, analysts predict.

Prospective candidates and their surrogates insist it’s too early to tell what kind of standing Mr. Obama will have with voters and whether he will be seen as damaged goods the way President Bush was for Republicans in 2008.

But discontent is brewing within the Democratic Party over what some see as Mr. Obama’s concessions to Republicans.

Those Democratic voters will be looking for candidates willing to slide further to the left, especially on economic issues.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt that the next Democratic candidate is likely to be more populist than Obama has been. I think you might see [Hillary Rodham Clinton] move in that direction. I think you might see any major challenger to her move in that direction,” said Mike Lux, co-founder and CEO of the consulting firm Progressive Strategies who has worked on five presidential campaigns. “I think you will see that rumbling under the surface, that a Democrat is going to need to run a more populist campaign. I don’t think it will be an open, outright distancing from Obama, but just a much more populist version” of the Obama approach.

Just how different the candidates can be, however, isn’t clear.

Team Obama

For Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Obama’s former secretary of state, and Vice President Joseph R. Biden, who is in the middle of his second term as Mr. Obama’s right-hand man, it will be virtually impossible for the candidates to completely separate from the current administration and its policy successes and failures.

For Mr. Biden, the burden will be the health care reform law and other domestic policies. Indeed, he has been a chief cheerleader for many of those initiatives, including shepherding the 2009 stimulus package.

But Mr. Biden sees opportunities as well, particularly in parts of the country that are more receptive to his blue-collar credentials.

“There’s some places where I can go in and the president can’t,” he said in an interview with CNN that aired Friday.

For Mrs. Clinton, foreign policy wins and losses — along with the politically volatile 2012 terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya — will keep her closely tied to Mr. Obama, for better or worse.

Other potential candidates, such as Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, will have an easier time choosing which parts of the Obama legacy to embrace. Mr. O’Malley and other Democratic governors also may have significant credibility with the party faithful because of their efforts to implement Obamacare at the state level.

Still, Samuel L. Popkin, a political science professor at the University of California, San Diego, said the president’s image and reputation will bleed over.

“It’s going to be very much like it always is. Like it or not, you’re the third term,” said Mr. Popkin, who served as a consultant to the Bill Clinton and Al Gore presidential campaigns, among others. “No [Democratic] candidate can run against Obama. The question is, how do you clarify the ways you’ll be the next step. This is the intellectual problem for them, how they explain their step forward. What comes next?”

Populist yearnings

Progressives have a clear appetite for an outside-the-establishment candidate to embody those next steps.

Beyond the desire for a more populist economic approach, progressives have been disappointed in other areas and may look for a candidate willing to go further than this White House.

Progressives cheered Mr. Obama’s embrace of same-sex marriage and his push to end the military’s ban on gays serving openly, but many believe he should take unilateral steps to ban workplace discrimination by federal contractors.

Hispanic rights groups, meanwhile, say he could take further executive action to stop deportations. Some environmentalists continue to criticize this president for embracing the benefits of natural gas and for not doing enough to accelerate the development and use of clean energy sources such as wind or solar power.

Dark horses

How those issues play out in the campaign and how important they are to voters in the party primary and general elections remain to be seen.

What is clear is that Mrs. Clinton, at this early stage of the process, looks to be unstoppable. Mr. O’Malley and Mr. Biden remain light-years behind Mrs. Clinton in early polling.

But Mrs. Clinton looked nearly as strong in the early days of the 2008 cycle, only to be overtaken by Mr. Obama, who rode a wave of enthusiasm among young voters and progressives to ultimately secure his party’s nomination.

Beneath the surface, a similar wave may be rising within the Democratic ranks.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts has indicated that she won’t run, but her full-throated populism and condemnation of Wall Street have captured the imaginations of progressives and turned her into a model against which other Democrats may be judged. Also, she has not been a part of the Obama administration and can more credibly make the case that the Democratic Party must shift further to the left.

“Elizabeth Warren has spoken to the needs of the little guy who is struggling in our economy. We’ll be working with progressive groups to ensure that every Democratic candidate running for president, including Hillary Clinton, is asked whether they agree with Elizabeth Warren on key economic populist issues like more Wall Street reform and expanding Social Security benefits instead of cutting them,” said Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a nearly 1 million-member progressive advocacy organization. “Democrats would be smart in the primary and general election to be more populist and stand up for the little guy more on economic issues. That’s the right way to think about distance between themselves and President Obama.”

Mrs. Clinton’s supporters are focused on early grass-roots organizing and amassing a campaign war chest, not the political strategy of distancing the former secretary of state from Mr. Obama or contending with an insurgent challenge from the left.

“It’s too early. Hillary hasn’t said if she’s going to run, so even her candidacy is hypothetical at this point,” said Seth Bringman, a spokesman for Ready for Hillary, a super PAC that’s helping lay the groundwork for Mrs. Clinton’s expected run. “We’re focused on grass-roots organizing, echoing her message, encouraging her to run and helping her be in the strongest position possible should she decide to do so. The strategies of the hypothetical campaign would be up to the hypothetical campaign, not us.”