- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 25, 2019

Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden’s entry in the presidential race puts all eyes back on the man he calls his brother and best friend: former President Barack Obama.

While Mr. Obama has signaled that he plans to stay out of the fray, and Mr. Biden said he won’t put his pal in the hot seat by asking for an endorsement, the 76-year-old third-time candidate will have to figure out whether to lean into or distance himself from eight years of playing Robin to Mr. Obama’s Batman.

In his announcement Thursday, Mr. Biden shied away from his time as the vice president — and indeed ignored the rest of his more than 40 years as a public official, instead focusing squarely on anger at President Trump.

Yet Mr. Biden’s opponents also face challenges in attacking the man who stood by Mr. Obama, who remains a hero within the Democratic electorate.

“I would expect Biden to hug Obama tightly even though the former president is staying out of the race, at least for now,” said Kyle Kondik, of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “It will be interesting to see if in criticizing Biden, the other Democrats criticize Obama, too. … I wonder how criticism of Obama would go over.”

Since leaving office in 2017, Mr. Obama has kept a far busier political schedule than most former presidents.

He’s delivered speeches seen as swipes at Mr. Trump, who has spent most of his time in office dismantling as much of Mr. Obama’s legacy as can be done through executive action.

Mr. Obama has also met with several of the 2020 contenders, and donors weighing their political investments have been waiting to see whether the former president would bless a particular candidate.

“Joe Biden is loved in the party but even that pales in comparison to Obama,” a former major Obama fundraiser said. “Every Democrat loves Obama and has tremendous respect for him.”

At the same time, the party has moved further to the left, with the policies of Sen. Bernard Sanders of Vermont and other democratic socialists now dominating the conversation.

Charles Chamberlain, executive director of Democracy for America, said progressives remember Mr. Obama’s willingness to try to cooperate with Republicans — and not in a good way.

“What we saw was a Republican Party that was not willing to work with Democrats,” Mr. Chamberlain said. “Obama and Biden never really got that. So one of the things that really worries me is that it looks like Biden still doesn’t get it.”

He said Democrats cannot treat Mr. Trump as an “aberration” for the GOP, but must see him as the mainstream of what Republicans have become.

Vice presidents before have struggled with whether to run in the shadow of their presidents.

In 2000, Al Gore tried to forge distance from then-President Bill Clinton, but George H.W. Bush played up his devotion to President Ronald Reagan when he launched his 1988 campaign.

Mr. Biden finds himself in a somewhat different situation given the years that have elapsed since he and Mr. Obama left office and Mr. Trump’s incumbency.

Complicating Mr. Biden’s decision is his own lengthy Senate record before he was vice president. Already Mr. Biden has suggested regret at his handling of the confirmation hearing for Justice Clarence Thomas and has disassociated himself from the tough-on-crime bill he shepherded through the Senate for Mr. Clinton.

But embracing the Obama years could also be awkward — particularly on immigration, where the former president still holds the record for most deportations in a year.

“Before Donald Trump, Obama was the deporter-in-chief,” Mr. Chamberlain said. “He definitely deported more people out of the country than anybody before him. People are going to be looking at that record and saying ‘How can we trust Biden?’”

Activists also question Mr. Biden’s relationships with Wall Street and corporate America, as well as his reluctance to go all-in for a single-payer health care system and his willingness to sign off on a deficit reduction plan that would have trimmed Social Security benefits.

New Hampshire state Sen. Martha Fuller Clark, who served as a superdelegate for the Obama-Biden ticket at the 2008 Democratic National Convention, said Mr. Biden enters the race in the good graces of many voters, but he still has a lot to prove with or without Mr. Obama’s backing.

“I don’t think Obama’s endorsement, if he were to come out and endorse Biden, would really change the momentum,” she said. “I think it is going to be up to Biden himself to be able to appeal to the progressives and appeal to the moderates and independents. That is a big challenge, but I think it is essential if we are going to be able to take back the White House.”

Mr. Biden, for his part, said he’s not expecting any Obama help.

“I asked President Obama not to endorse, and he doesn’t want to,” he told reporters. “Whoever wins this nomination should win it on their own merits.”

• S.A. Miller contributed to this article.

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