Bi­den’s White House strat­egy re­lies on pop­u­lar­ity of for­mer pres­i­dent

The Times-Tribune - - FRONT PAGE - BY THOMAS BEAU­MONT AND JULIE PACE

BLUFFTON, S.C. — Joe Bi­den is fi­nal­iz­ing the frame­work for a White House cam­paign that would cast him as an ex­ten­sion of Barack Obama’s pres­i­dency and po­lit­i­cal move­ment. He’s bet­ting that the ma­jor­ity of Demo­cratic vot­ers are ea­ger to re­turn to the style and sub­stance of that era — and that they’ll view him as the best op­tion to lead the way back.

The for­mer vice pres­i­dent has begun test­ing the ap­proach as he nears an ex­pected cam­paign launch later this month. Af­ter re­marks at a re­cent la­bor union event, Bi­den said he was proud to be an “Oba­mabi­den Demo­crat,” coin­ing a term that his ad­vis­ers de­fine

as prag­matic and pro­gres­sive, and a bridge be­tween the work­ing-class white vot­ers who have long had an affin­ity for Bi­den and the younger, more di­verse vot­ers who backed Obama in his­toric num­bers.

Bi­den’s strat­egy will test whether any­one other than Obama can recre­ate the coali­tion that de­liv­ered him to the White House twice, but was some­thing Hillary Clin­ton was un­able to do in 2016. And it will thrust the 44th pres­i­dent’s legacy into the cen­ter of the 2020 cam­paign.

Though Obama re­mains over­whelm­ingly pop­u­lar among Democrats, an un­der­cur­rent of the party’s pri­mary con­test is the push from some lib­eral Democrats to go far fur­ther than his ad­min­is­tra­tion in up­end­ing the fed­eral health care sys­tem or ad­dress­ing in­come in­equal­ity. Sens. Bernie San­ders of Ver­mont and El­iz­a­beth War­ren of Mas­sachusetts have led the charge, call­ing for more sweep­ing, sys­temic change, though nei­ther has ex­plic­itly crit­i­cized Obama by name.

“The party has changed some­what,” said Paul Harstad, a long­time Obama poll­ster. “I think the party is look­ing for some­one more ag­gres­sive than Obama in tac­tics and ap­proach.”

In some ways, Bi­den’s em­brace of Obama’s legacy is to be ex­pected. He spent eight years as Obama’s No. 2, serv­ing as a key con­gres­sional li­ai­son and for­eign pol­icy ad­viser, and the two men re­main per­son­ally close.

Yet Bi­den, a 76-year-old white man with more than four decades of po­lit­i­cal ex­pe­ri­ence, is an atyp­i­cal heir to Obama’s legacy, par­tic­u­larly in a Demo­cratic field with a his­toric num­ber of mi­nor­ity can­di­dates, as well as con­tenders who rep­re­sent the kind of gen­er­a­tional change Obama ush­ered in more than a decade ago.

That puts both Obama and many of his long­time ad­vis­ers in an awk­ward spot.

Sev­eral months ago, Obama and Bi­den agreed that it would be best if the for­mer pres­i­dent did not en­dorse any can­di­date early in the pri­mary, ac­cord­ing to a per­son with knowl­edge of the con­ver­sa­tion, mean­ing Bi­den will be run­ning as an “Obama-bi­den Demo­crat” with­out Obama’s ex­plicit back­ing. The per­son with knowl­edge of Obama and Bi­den’s dis­cus­sion, as well as sev­eral Bi­den ad­vis­ers, spoke on con­di­tion of anonymity in or­der to dis­close pri­vate con­ver­sa­tions.

Most of the orig­i­nal ar­chi­tects of Obama’s pres­i­den­tial cam­paigns have no plans to work for Bi­den or en­dorse him early in the pri­mary, and some have moved on to other can­di­dates. Jen O’mal­ley Dil­lon, who held se­nior po­si­tions in Obama’s cam­paigns, is run­ning for­mer Texas Rep. Beto O’rourke’s White House ef­fort, and Joe Rospars, Obama’s chief dig­i­tal strate­gist, is an ad­viser to War­ren.

Though there is deep af­fec­tion for Bi­den among Obama’s team, many pri­vately ques­tion his skills as a cam­paigner and fear a los­ing run will dam­age his rep­u­ta­tion as a beloved el­der states­man. Some Demo­cratic vot­ers share that con­cern.

“I think he should go out on a high. He was al­ready a suc­cess­ful vice pres­i­dent,” Clau­dia Gra­ham, a 64-yearold from Sun City, South Carolina, said as she waited in line to hear O’rourke speak at a town hall on Fri­day.

To Ka­t­rina Ri­ley, a 69-yearold self-de­scribed mod­er­ate Demo­crat, Bi­den’s long po­lit­i­cal re­sume would be a wel­come change from Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, who took of­fice with­out hav­ing ever served in govern­ment or the mil­i­tary. Ri­ley also as­so­ciates Bi­den with a time she misses: “I’d like Barack Obama back,” she said.

Bi­den ad­vis­ers say it’s more than nos­tal­gia that po­si­tions the for­mer vice pres­i­dent well in the 2020 cam­paign. They ar­gue that de­spite a vo­cal left flank, the bulk of the Demo­cratic Party is still in line with many of ini­tia­tives of the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, in­clud­ing the overhaul of the na­tion’s fed­eral health care laws and the Paris cli­mate ac­cord.

All the ma­jor Demo­cratic White House hope­fuls have pledged to re­turn the U.S. to the in­ter­na­tional cli­mate pact, which Trump with­drew from in 2017. The Obama health law, known as the Af­ford­able Care Act, also has in­creased in pop­u­lar­ity since Obama and Bi­den left the White House, with many Re­pub­li­can law­mak­ers now op­posed to push­ing for a full re­peal.

Scott Mul­hauser, who ad­vised Bi­den dur­ing the 2012 cam­paign, said Bi­den’s po­si­tions put him in “the sweet spot where most of the Demo­cratic Party could be, but also a de­cent amount of mod­er­ates and I’m sure some Repub­li­cans.”

But those stands do put Bi­den out of step with some cor­ners of his party. De­spite the in­creased pop­u­lar­ity of Obama’s health law, sur­veys show the idea of a gov­ern­ment­backed “Medi­care for All” sys­tem, which nu­mer­ous Demo­cratic can­di­dates have pro­posed, is also backed by a vast ma­jor­ity of Democrats. Ac­cord­ing to a Kaiser Fam­ily Foun­da­tion poll taken last month, both Medi­care for All and “Oba­macare” were viewed fa­vor­ably by about 80 per­cent of Democrats.

Bi­den ad­vis­ers say they see clear ev­i­dence in both polling and the re­sults of the 2018 midterm elec­tions to bol­ster their con­tention that the party tilts more to­ward cen­trists like the for­mer vice pres­i­dent than to­ward lib­er­als.

Ac­cord­ing to a re­cent Pew Re­search Cen­ter sur­vey of Demo­cratic vot­ers, 53% said they want their party to move in a more mod­er­ate di­rec­tion, while 40% said they pre­ferred a more lib­eral ap­proach. Though some of the high-pro­file mem­bers of the new House Demo­cratic ma­jor­ity are lib­er­als such as New York Rep. Alexan­dria Oca­sio-cortez, the party overtook Repub­li­cans on the backs of mod­er­ates who ousted Repub­li­cans in white, work­ing-class dis­tricts.

Harstad, the for­mer Obama poll­ster, said there’s no doubt that Obama’s legacy and pol­icy record re­main solid with Demo­cratic vot­ers. But he added: “Bi­den is not Obama.”

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