A con­test for Obama legacy

In a rapidly grow­ing field of Democrats, hope­fuls qui­etly vie to be seen as suc­ces­sor to his achieve­ments.

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Janet Hook

WASH­ING­TON — Sen. Ka­mala Har­ris has been called the “fe­male Barack Obama.” For­mer Rep. Beto O’Rourke has been dubbed “Barack Obama, but white.” Sen. Cory Booker sings from the Obama hym­nal of hope and op­ti­mism. Joe Bi­den, as Obama’s vice pres­i­dent, is closer to the for­mer pres­i­dent than any­one run­ning for the White House in 2020.

In the rapidly grow­ing Demo­cratic can­di­date field, an un­der-the-radar com­pe­ti­tion is brew­ing over who is the clear­est heir to for­mer Pres­i­dent Obama’s po­lit­i­cal legacy.

Many of the Democrats run­ning or think­ing about it have made a pil­grim­age to Obama’s of­fice to seek his coun­sel. Some have found ways to ca­su­ally drop that fact into tele­vised in­ter­views.

“I can’t think of a bet­ter per­son to get ad­vice from,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar said in an MSNBC in­ter­view af­ter she an­nounced her can­di­dacy. “And he seems, by the way, in a very good mood.”

Obama is un­likely to weigh in with a pub­lic en­dorse­ment. But the com­pe­ti­tion to ig­nite an Oba­ma­like spark and to re­assem­ble the coali­tion of young vot­ers, women and peo­ple of color that car­ried him twice into the White House tes­ti­fies to his last­ing im­pact on his party.

That sort of legacy is rel­a­tively rare. Repub­li­cans, af-

ter Ge­orge W. Bush’s pres­i­dency, did not flock to him for ad­vice or run as his lega­tee. With Bill Clin­ton’s pres­i­dency clouded by scan­dal, even then-Vice Pres­i­dent Al Gore kept his dis­tance in his 2000 White House bid.

Ron­ald Rea­gan, by con­trast, was an en­dur­ing po­lit­i­cal icon for the Repub­li­can Party, hav­ing gal­va­nized a GOP coali­tion of de­fense hawks, fis­cal con­ser­va­tives and the re­li­gious right that en­dured for decades. A gen­er­a­tion of Repub­li­cans af­ter him com­peted in pri­maries to see who could out-Rea­gan their ri­vals.

Obama’s stature is not quite that im­pos­ing, if only be­cause there is not such broad agree­ment about whether repli­cat­ing the Obama coali­tion alone is the most en­dur­ing fu­ture path for the party.

While he built a ma­jor­ity heavy on women and mi­nori­ties in ur­ban, coastal re­gions, some Democrats be­lieve the party would be bet­ter off if it also worked harder to ex­pand sup­port among ru­ral, white com­mu­ni­ties and in the Mid­west.

There is also a lively de­bate about whether Obama’s trade­mark mes­sage of hope and unity is what Demo­cratic pri­mary vot­ers want to hear in the po­lar­ized Trump era.

Can­di­dates such as El­iz­a­beth War­ren are build­ing their cam­paign with fight­ing words about the clash be­tween the haves and havenots.

But Va­lerie Jar­rett, a close Obama friend and for­mer White House ad­vi­sor, says she be­lieves vot­ers are still hun­gry for an up­beat leader like Obama.

“Part of the rea­son he’s en­joy­ing such pop­u­lar­ity is he stood for some­thing good and pos­i­tive and op­ti­mistic,” Jar­rett said in an in­ter­view. “There are sev­eral can­di­dates who have that level of op­ti­mism and be­lieve we should ap­peal to our bet­ter an­gels.”

Obama has been one of the most pop­u­lar Democrats on the na­tional scene since leav­ing of­fice. In a Septem­ber 2018 Wall Street Jour­nal/NBC News poll, 54% of reg­is­tered vot­ers said they had pos­i­tive feel­ings about him. He was in great de­mand dur­ing the midterm elec­tion and cam­paigned for Democrats across the coun­try.

At the nadir of his pres­i­dency, by con­trast, just 40% had pos­i­tive feel­ings about him in an Au­gust 2014 Jour­nal/NBC poll, and many Democrats in tough midterm races tried to run away from him and his sig­na­ture health­care law.

Obama has been less pub­licly po­lit­i­cal since the midterms. He is sched­uled to speak Tues­day in Oak­land at a con­fer­ence of My Brother’s Keeper, a non­profit ded­i­cated to ad­vanc­ing young men of color.

One of his po­lit­i­cal pri­or­i­ties is the work of the Na­tional Demo­cratic Redis­trict­ing Com­mit­tee, a group that is try­ing to com­bat ger­ry­man­der­ing of con­gres­sional dis­tricts in Repub­li­cans’ fa­vor.

Late last year, Obama con­sol­i­dated his po­lit­i­cal ef­forts by fold­ing his non­profit grass-roots group Or­ga­niz­ing for Ac­tion into the redis­trict­ing com­mit­tee.

Not all 2020 pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates are cam­paign­ing as heirs of Obama-ism. Sen. Bernie San­ders, the Ver­mont in­de­pen­dent who is ex­pected to an­nounce his 2020 bid in the com­ing week, has called for poli­cies far to the left of Obama’s in ex­pand­ing ac­cess to health­care and reg­u­lat­ing Wall Street.

But many po­ten­tial Demo­cratic can­di­dates want his ad­vice on run­ning for pres­i­dent, and Obama has been gen­er­ous with his time.

One of the lesser-known Demo­cratic hope­fuls said he spent 90 min­utes with Obama last year. When he asked about Iowa, the ear­lyvot­ing state where Obama scored his break-out vic­tory in 2008, the for­mer pres­i­dent was still a well­spring of knowl­edge.

“He still knows all the lit­tle nooks and cran­nies of cam­paign­ing in Iowa,” the 2020 can­di­date said.

O’Rourke sought a meet­ing with Obama af­ter the 2018 midterm elec­tion. He told Oprah Win­frey in an in­ter­view that the for­mer pres­i­dent did not urge him one way or the other on the de­ci­sion to run but warned him about the strain it could put on his fam­ily.

“He said, ‘Look, just to be re­ally clear, this is one of the most in­tense … bru­tal things you can go through,’ ” O’Rourke re­called. “‘Know that go­ing into it.’ ”

Klobuchar men­tioned her visit with Obama when her MSNBC in­ter­view turned to the touchy sub­ject of high turnover of her staff.

“I was teas­ing Pres­i­dent Obama the other day,” Klobuchar said. “They have hired — the White House hired over 20 of my staff mem­bers.”

Har­ris also talked to Obama be­fore an­nounc­ing her cam­paign, but her staff of­fered no in­for­ma­tion about their con­tact.

Run­ning for pres­i­dent dur­ing her first term in the Se­nate, as did Obama, and be­ing a bira­cial lawyer nearly guar­an­teed Har­risObama com­par­isons. Back in 2009, while Har­ris was run­ning for Cal­i­for­nia at­tor­ney gen­eral, the late Gwen Ifill iden­ti­fied her as part of a ris­ing gen­er­a­tion of black lead­ers in her book, “The Break­through: Pol­i­tics and Race in the Age of Obama.”

“She’s bril­liant; she’s smart. They call her the fe­male Barack Obama,” Ifill said in an in­ter­view on “Late Night with David Let­ter­man.”

Har­ris first met Obama when he ran for U.S. Se­nate from Illi­nois in 2004. She was an early sup­porter of his pres­i­den­tial bid at a time when Hil­lary Clin­ton was the es­tab­lish­ment fa­vorite.

When Obama an­nounced his long-shot can­di­dacy in Spring­field, Ill., on a frigid day in Fe­bru­ary 2007, Har­ris was there. Dur­ing her 2016 Se­nate cam­paign against fel­low Demo­crat Loretta Sanchez, Har­ris got a big plug from the pres­i­dent when he cut a 30-sec­ond tele­vi­sion ad call­ing her a “fear­less fighter.”

Her 2020 cam­paign strat­egy in­cludes a sig­nif­i­cant de­par­ture from Obama’s: She is em­brac­ing her iden­tity as a black wo­man. Obama down­played his race but still drew record lev­els of black turnout, which Democrats in 2020 will be as­pir­ing to repli­cate.

Booker, who is also black and, like Obama, has a back­ground as a com­mu­nity or­ga­nizer, has a cam­paign mes­sage that is of­ten likened to Obama’s be­cause of his fo­cus on love and unity. In his first news con­fer­ence as a can­di­date, he made a joke that ap­pealed to vot­ers’ af­fec­tion for the for­mer pres­i­dent and wife, Michelle:

“I want ev­ery­one to know: I miss Obama. And I miss her hus­band, too,” he said.

He re­called get­ting ad­vice from Obama in the Oval Of­fice the day he was sworn in as a sen­a­tor. “I’m re­ally grate­ful for the kind of lead­er­ship he pro­vided this coun­try,” Booker said.

James M. De­mers, who was co-chair­man of Obama’s 2008 cam­paign in New Hamp­shire, has en­dorsed Booker and called him “Obama 2.0” be­cause of his en­er­getic abil­ity to con­nect with vot­ers.

“We elected a pres­i­dent in 2008 who cam­paigned on hope and change,” De­mers said. “In 2016, we elected a pres­i­dent who won on di­vide and con­quer. If we re­spond to Don­ald Trump with our ver­sion of di­vide and con­quer, we might win an elec­tion, but he proved you can’t gov­ern.”

O’Rourke has been widely likened to Obama be­cause of his youth­ful ap­peal, fundrais­ing prow­ess and au­then­tic-seem­ing style of cam­paign­ing in his un­suc­cess­ful 2018 cam­paign to un­seat GOP Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.

“He should run,” a fundraiser was quoted in Politico as say­ing. “He’s Barack Obama, but white.”

Obama called O’Rourke an “im­pres­sive young man who ran a ter­rific race in Texas” in a Novem­ber 2018 pod­cast in­ter­view with his own for­mer ad­vi­sor David Ax­el­rod.

“What I liked most about his race was that it didn’t feel con­stantly poll-tested,” Obama said. “The rea­son I was able to make a con­nec­tion with a siz­able por­tion of the coun­try was peo­ple had a sense that I said what I meant.”

No can­di­date is closer to Obama than Bi­den, and his sup­port­ers be­lieve he will ben­e­fit strongly from that con­nec­tion if he de­cides to run.

“If he de­cides to run, there will be a huge nos­tal­gia wave when you get to see Joe back on the cam­paign trail,” said Wade Ran­dlett, a long­time Demo­cratic fundraiser.

But Ax­el­rod said a Bi­den cam­paign would have to go far be­yond a promise of an Obama-era restora­tion.

“The chal­lenge for him will be to speak to the fu­ture,” Ax­el­rod said. “If he doesn’t, he is not go­ing to be the nom­i­nee.”

‘He said, “Look, just to be re­ally clear, this is one of the most in­tense … bru­tal things you can go through. Know that go­ing into it.” ’ — BETO O’ROURKE, on cam­paign in­sight given by for­mer Pres­i­dent Obama

Elise Amendola As­so­ci­ated Press

SEN. KA­MALA HAR­RIS, one of eight pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates who vis­ited New Hamp­shire over the long week­end, greets pa­trons at a res­tau­rant in Con­cord.

Scott Ol­son Getty Images

AN AD­VI­SOR to for­mer Pres­i­dent Obama said she be­lieves vot­ers are still hun­gry for an up­beat leader.

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