- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 1, 2019

DETROIT — Democratic voters are still enamored with former President Barack Obama, but the party’s 2020 presidential hopefuls are running away from his policies as fast as they can.

Although many voters say they are searching for an Obama-esque standard-bearer to run against President Trump, the candidates say the former president was a failure on immigration, health care and trade.

Even former Vice President Joseph R. Biden tossed overboard the man he called his “brother from another mother.” He griped during the Democratic presidential debate Wednesday that Obamacare needs changes, the trade deal they negotiated falls short and too many illegal immigrants were deported.

“Absolutely not,” he said when pressed on whether he would continue Obama administration deportation policies, which resulted in 400,000 removals a year, a figure that outraged liberal activists.

The Obama legacy took hits from Sen. Kamala D. Harris of California. She described the Affordable Care Act, often touted as Mr. Obama’s biggest accomplishment, as unacceptable “status quo.”

Sen. Cory A. Booker of New Jersey trashed the former president’s immigration legacy.

Deflecting criticism of his own administration, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio faulted the Obama Justice Department’s handling of the 2014 killing of Eric Garner, a black man who died in a chokehold by city police during his arrest for selling cigarettes on the street.

Mr. Biden pivoted Thursday to more forcefully defend Mr. Obama’s record.

“I was a little surprised about how much incoming there was about Barack,” he said at a campaign stop at a Detroit diner. “I’m proud of having served with him. I’m proud of the job he did. I don’t think there is anything he has to apologize for.”

Mr. Biden didn’t reverse course on where he distanced himself from the country’s first black president.

However, he defended the Obama immigration record, citing the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals deportation amnesty granted to illegal immigrant “Dreamers.” He said the number of deportations was a poor yardstick for the administration’s accomplishments.

“The idea it’s somehow comparable to what this guy’s doing is bizarre,” he said.

Zach Friend, a Democratic strategist who worked on Mr. Obama’s 2008 campaign, said it was a mistake to mess with the former president, whose popularity among Democrats has been as high as 97% in recent polls.

“It seems counterproductive to focus on concerns with his legacy rather than on President Trump’s current policies,” he said. “Ultimately, the differences in shades of blue between these candidates pale in comparison to the differences between these candidates and the policies of the current administration. The focus should be united on how we will make the lives better for everyday Americans and how to keep this president a one-term president.”

The Rev. Wendell Anthony, president of the Detroit NAACP, agreed that the focus should be on Mr. Trump “because his record is destroying the nation and who we are.”

“They spent a lot of time talking about the past, rather than the present or future,” he said. “You don’t want to cannibalize the whole team so no woman or no man is left standing.”

If there was any doubt about the continuing appeal of Mr. Obama, Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez put it to rest with his opening remarks at the debate.

“Am I the only one who misses Barack Obama in this room?” Mr. Perez called out to a roar of applause from the crowd at the Fox Theater.

The moment could have given pause to the 10 candidates about to take the stage and sow doubts about Mr. Obama’s legacy.

Criticizing Mr. Obama’s time in the White House is a dangerous undertaking for any of the 2020 hopefuls because they risk alienating the party’s voters who romanticize those not-so-long-ago days.

It is particularly treacherous for Mr. Biden, who is running as Mr. Obama’s political heir with the promise of restoring the normalcy of the Obama era.

Obama voters were irked by the attacks on the former president’s policies at the debates Tuesday and Wednesday.

Francois Demonique, a professional chauffeur in Detroit, said he “felt bad” seeing Mr. Obama’s legacy dragged through the mud.

“Democrats are not supposed to sling at another Democrat because they are giving President Trump ammunition to use against them in the general,” said Mr. Demonique, who is backing Mr. Biden because of his ties to Mr. Obama.

Mr. Demonique moved to the U.S. from Liberia more than 30 years ago. He said he got his U.S. citizenship so he could vote for Mr. Obama.

He was especially distraught that Sen. Bernard Sanders of Vermont and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts want to replace Obamacare with “Medicare for All” government-run health care.

“That is like attacking Obamacare. If you want to take away current insurance, that is scratching everything and starting all over,” he said.

Jeff Link, an Iowa-based Democratic strategist, said it is smart for Mr. Biden to keep Mr. Obama close because the good in the eyes of primary voters far outweighs the bad.

“I wouldn’t put a lot of distance between [Mr. Biden] and President Obama on anything,” Mr. Link said. “I think he is smart to embrace Obama, and why not embrace the whole thing? Obama is still incredibly popular and respected among Democrats — particularly Democratic primary voters.”

He said Mr. Biden’s words against the former president may have been “in the heat of the moment” of the debate and noted that he tried to repair any damage afterward.

“I would hold on tight to Barack Obama if I were Joe Biden,” Mr. Link said.

Still, the Democratic Party has moved dramatically to the left since Mr. Obama was in office.

Some of the strongest challengers to Mr. Biden, who remains the front-runner, are far-left champions Mr. Sanders and Ms. Warren.

Another powerful contender, Ms. Harris, is more moderate but also is embracing parts of the far-left agenda, including a variation of Medicare for All.

Darrell West, vice president and director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution, said it was an effective strategy for Mr. Biden to tap into Mr. Obama’s popularity with the party’s voters.

“That may well be Biden’s best claim to the nomination. However, in the current political environment, it will be hard to defend Obama’s record on deportation and trade,” he said. “The party has moved well to the left on those issues, and no one is going to accept those policies as the right ones at the current time.”

• Seth McLaughlin can be reached at smclaughlin@washingtontimes.com.

• S.A. Miller can be reached at smiller@washingtontimes.com.

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