The Obama primary: Which Democrat can claim his legacy in 2020?

A decade after President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama first walked the Inaugural Parade route, Democratic candidates are vying to see who can lay claim to the coalition that put him in office and the optimism he generated among many voters.
(Jim Watson / AFP/Getty Images)

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 Barack 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 Obama-like 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, after 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 have-nots. 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.”

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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 grassroots 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 early-voting 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 Harris-Obama 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,” said Demers. “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,” said Axelrod. “If he doesn’t, he is not going to be the nominee.”

Twitter: @hookjan