Joe Biden’s Obama Problem

President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden in the Rose Garden at the White House in 2015. (Gary Cameron/Reuters)
If Biden is going to lean on his service in the last administration, he needs to be strategic about it.

Wednesday night’s debate saw Joe Biden attacked for invoking . . . Barack Obama. New Jersey senator Cory Booker chastised the vice president for trying to have it both ways on his role in the Obama administration, invoking his work when advantageous but playing coy when politically helpful. Absentee New York City mayor Bill de Blasio inveighed against Biden as a proxy for Obama’s record on deportation.

This is a curious thing for a Democratic primary debate. Obama enjoys near-universal popularity among Democratic primary voters and is unlikely to endorse Biden, or anyone else for that matter. So what gives?

Two concrete issues are driving this odd development. First, the Democratic party is deeply divided over whether to preserve and extend Obamacare or scrap it in favor of a Medicare for All single-payer system. Second, the party has moved decidedly left on questions of immigration and now runs the gamut from default amnesty to open borders.

Yet the real cause of the issue is Biden’s strategy, or lack thereof, when it comes to invoking the 44th president. Biden uses Obama when he’s in a jam. If he feels backed into a corner, he automatically spits out (to paraphrase Biden’s own attack on then-candidate Rudy Giuliani) a noun, a verb, and “Barack Obama.”

As a result, Biden’s invocations of his former boss are almost always defensive and reflexive rather than strategic. Obama is Biden’s trump card, so to speak. But like any party trick, saying Obama’s name gets less effective the more times people hear it. During Wednesday night’s debate, Biden was using Obama opportunistically, and it showed. As a result, former Obama staffers and prominent supporters — among them Eric Holder, Rahm Emanuel, and Neera Tanden — came rushing to Obama’s defense . . . but not to Biden’s.

Biden prefers talking about Obama because he doesn’t want to have to relitigate his pre-Obama record in the Senate. There, Biden has to answer for positions he has taken that sit poorly in today’s Democratic party.

Yet Biden is also uncomfortable in his newfound position as a presidential front-runner. Biden is the consummate insider. As a result, he’s used to having the press and his party on his side. Now, he can’t count on either. The press loves to anoint candidates, and a media consensus is forming around pushing Warren at Biden’s expense. Meanwhile, his fellow primary candidates are attacking him to advance their own candidacies, including people who have sung his praises for years and who have worked with him to pass the very programs they now criticize.

Not all of these attacks have been terribly effective. California senator Kamala Harris went back to the attack-Biden well and found it dry. This was an unforced error on her part. Going after Biden a second time made her seem small rather than expanding her stature. Primary voters want Harris to be a candidate in her own right, not just a contrast with Biden.

New York’s Kirsten Gillibrand came up even shorter. Drawing on a single op-ed from nearly 40 years ago, she failed to tell a story about Biden’s character. She had a talking point, but no follow-on, so she wound up playing the same note over and over again and fell flat. De Blasio had a spirited and substantive attack on Biden, but because the city he governs hates his guts, nobody takes him seriously, and Biden was able to brush him off. Only Booker had a successful exchange with Biden, largely because he called Biden out directly on his opportunistic use of Obama while playing the happy warrior.

Regardless, Biden didn’t exactly shine. And none of his critics last night attacked Biden with the gravity and intensity that Senators Warren and Sanders will the next time they take the stage with the former veep. This was, all told, soft stuff.

If Biden is going to continue leaning heavily on his service in the last administration, he needs to be strategic about it. He would be wise to invoke Obama only regarding health care. Like the other so-called moderate candidates running, Biden has real disagreements with Medicare for All as fiscally unsustainable and politically self-defeating. Yet none of these candidates, including Biden, has made an affirmative case for protecting and expanding Obamacare.

Biden is uniquely positioned to do that. In the minds of Democratic primary voters, Obama is the most successful Democratic president in living memory. If the Affordable Care Act was good enough for Obama to embrace the colloquial moniker Obamacare, Biden ought to say it’s good enough for him and commit to fighting for it. He should argue against throwing the baby out with the bathwater in chasing a dream that would kick 150 million people off their health care and potentially hand another term to President Trump.

Perceived electability is Biden’s core strength. That message appeals to it. Uncle Joe has lost a step or two and may not have the ability to deliver this message even if he decides to do so. But continuing to haphazardly invoke Obama from a defensive crouch would further alienate the Democratic-party elites who still have fond feelings for Biden.

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