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Why the Obama legacy is complicated for Joe Biden in 2020

Joe Biden invokes his service as former President Barack Obama's No. 2 early and often. But running largely on someone else’s legacy can be fraught with complications. And ahead of the 2020 election, Biden has learned that better than anyone.

In this Jan. 12, 2017, file photo, then-President Barack Obama laughs with then-Vice President Joe Biden during a ceremony in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, at which Obama presented Biden with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
In this Jan. 12, 2017, file photo, then-President Barack Obama laughs with then-Vice President Joe Biden during a ceremony in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, at which Obama presented Biden with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.Read moreSusan Walsh / AP

The first line on Joe Biden’s political resumé is a double-edged sword.

Biden invokes his service as former President Barack Obama’s No. 2 so much that his opponents needle him about it and “Saturday Night Live” has made it a running joke. It makes sense why the former vice president would bring up Obama early and often as he tries to secure the Democratic nomination to take on President Donald Trump in 2020. The name-drop resonates with many voters: Obama remains popular and he was, after all, the most recent Democrat to win the White House.

But for younger voters, the connection to the Obama legacy is less meaningful. And for the more progressive wing of an increasingly liberal party, Obama’s legacy is decidedly outdated. That makes the Obama flag a complicated one to wave, reflecting the tensions within the Democratic Party.

And Biden has learned that better than anyone.

“Everyone in the Democratic Party is united on this idea of defeating Trump, but no one knows what strategy is going to be most successful,” said Sarah Niebler, a political science professor at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa. “I think that’s why Biden’s appealing to the Obama legacy. It’s not even so much about policy but because he was on the ticket when it worked, when the Democrats cobbled together enough to win.”

Running largely on someone else’s legacy can be fraught with complications — just look at Al Gore in 2000 and Hillary Clinton in 2016 — particularly years later.

More Americans ranked Obama the best president of their lifetime in 2018 than any other president, according to the Pew Research Center. Obama currently has a higher approval rating — 60% — than Trump or any Democrat running for president. And the Democratic Party is eagerly watching to see if he endorses anyone in the huge primary field. Obama has said he’ll likely stay out of the race until there’s a nominee.

Interviews with voters and party players during a Biden swing through South Carolina in late November highlighted the Obama conundrum in a state seen as critical to Biden’s road to the nomination.

Many black voters there, in particular, “are still in love with Obama,” said Brandon Brown, a former Biden political director in 2008 who ran South Carolina operations for Rep. Tim Ryan this year until the Ohio Democrat ended his presidential campaign. “That feeling of hope and change, Joe Biden directly connects to that.”

Some Democrats think Biden can move the fastest to restore elements of Obama’s legacy that Trump has undone, said the Rev. Joe Darby, pastor of the Nichols Chapel AME Church in Charleston, S.C. “Joe was around when most of that stuff was done,” Darby said.

Even as Biden has slipped out of first place in the early-voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire, he remains atop national polls, as well as in almost every other state where polling has been conducted. A CNN poll in late November found Biden in first place nationally with 24%, compared with 16% for Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., and 13% each for Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

Credit for that doesn’t all go to Obama’s legacy, said Antjuan Seawright, a Democratic strategist who is unaligned in the race. “I think Biden is figuring out that he is his own unique car on the political highway,” Seawright said. “He can’t drive like Obama, he can’t sound like Obama, he just has to be Joe Biden because there was a Joe Biden before there was a Barack Obama. He’s the middle-class messenger in chief and I think he has to rely on the reputation of the support he’s built on his own over the years and realize that is a solid foundation to stand on.”

Among younger voters and more liberal voters, Biden does considerably worse. Niebler, of Dickinson, said the Obama coalition that candidates are trying to attract doesn’t exist in 2019.

“I think people still have in mind young people mobilized by Obama and think that means college-aged students now,” she said. “I hear from my students who say they really don’t remember as much of the Obama presidency as we might imagine.”

Neil Oxman, a Philadelphia-based Democratic consultant, put it more bluntly. “Nothing about Biden resonates with younger voters," said Oxman, who isn’t working for a 2020 candidate. "Part of it is they’re not quite connected with the Obama legacy. Part of it is that they see Biden as kind of a weird, out-of-touch old white guy, and I think really most of it is that they have all these other choices.”

Two Democratic voters in Orangeburg, S.C., underscored the generational divide.

Alston Jenkins, 21, a biology major at South Carolina State University, supports Warren. Jenkins said she sees Biden as “just Obama Part 2.”

“I know me and my friends see him kind of riding that coattail,” she said. "I respect that, but it’s also just, I want to know what you yourself are going to do.”

But Malika Stokes, 45, said she’s supporting Biden because of his background with Obama.

“He’s like Obama 2.0,” she said. Unlike Jenkins, Stokes meant it as a compliment.

As the party has shifted leftward, Biden has also had to answer for Obama-era policies that Democrats have come to view more skeptically, like the high number of deportations. At a Nov. 21 rally in Greenwood, S.C., Carlos Rojas, an immigration activist, challenged Biden on deportations during the Obama administration.

“We just want to hear what is Biden’s take on Obama’s record on deportations,” Rojas said in an interview later. “And, unfortunately, time and time again we have heard the vice president embrace Obama on deportations."

Even Obama’s most hard-core backers are wrestling with whether Biden’s service under the first black president is enough to secure their support.

Edith Childs, a 71-year-old councilwoman from Greenwood, S.C., became something of a political celebrity when she coined the rallying cry “Fired up! Ready to Go!” to hype crowds for Obama in 2007. Childs loves Obama. She prayed for him nightly during the 2008 campaign. She helped him campaign again in 2012, and says, “He did more than any president in my lifetime.”

But in an interview with The Inquirer, Childs said she’s still on the fence about Biden. She’s leaning toward him but was too busy to go to a recent rally he held in her hometown. What she does like about Biden is directly linked to Obama: He wants to build on Obamacare, and he’s more moderate than other candidates on student loan debt and college tuition.

“I feel good about Joe Biden,” Childs said. "But he’s got to do some things differently. He has to do something to really energize the people to want to vote for him and he’s got to start talking more directly about their needs.”

She said she’s working on a new slogan for Biden.

“I think," she said, "he could use one of his own.”