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 “Obama-Biden 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-year-old 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-year-old 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 government-backed “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.”