Former President Barack Obama's legacy looms over the 2020 Democratic primary. He was always overwhelmingly popular among Democrats and since leaving office he's become more broadly liked among the rest of the non-Republican population due to a post-presidential glow and the jarring contrast he makes with President Trump. However, a persistent core of critics (myself included) argue both his political ideology and his policy record were badly mistaken.
As T.A. Frank writes, this raises a question: How will the party and its 2020 contenders deal with Obama? Will they defend his legacy, forthrightly debate its shortcomings, or just ignore the issue entirely? I would bet a large sum that most will choose Door No. 3 — but that the party will quietly abandon most of his signature ideas.
First, a quick précis of what is under discussion. The Obama stimulus package was less than half as big as it needed to be, meaning unemployment was at 10 percent in November 2010, sending Democrats to a massive defeat in the midterms. Obama's foreclosure policy was a monumental catastrophe which crushed the wealth of middle-class homeowners — particularly African-American ones — to save the banks from their own fraudulent schemes. His corporate crime policy amounted to a near-halt of prosecutions of top white-collar crime, again largely to protect the banks.
Obama's health-care reform, while a step forward in some ways, was poorly designed and failed to stop skyrocketing cost growth. His climate policy was timid and inexcusably slow — while at the same time he enabled enormous growth of U.S. oil and gas drilling. He also made excuses for torture and largely embraced the Bush security apparatus — even extending it in places, like dragnet surveillance and assassinating American citizens.
Obama apologists typically deal with these problems in one of three ways. One strategy is to ignore them in favor of his positive record, which to be fair is pretty substantial. Jonathan Chait points to the stimulus, some moderate corporate regulation (Dodd Frank), and modest tax hikes on the rich as evidence he is basically just like FDR. Another strategy is slanted arithmetic: Michael Grunwald says the stimulus was as big as the New Deal in inflation-adjusted dollars, which is true but leaves out overall economic size, which is far more telling since the point of that spending was to restore full employment at the time it was passed. The Recovery Act spending was 5.7 percent of 2008 output, while the New Deal was 40 percent of 1929 output. A final strategy is just to point at Obama's popularity among Democrats (95 percent approval) as speaking for itself, as former administration staffer Jon Favreau does here.
I would guess that of the three, this final strategy will be the one that actually prevents any very searching debate over Obama's failures. Bringing that topic up online always creates an instant snarling fight between critics and the vastly more numerous legions of die-hard Obama partisans. For a candidate to do it would distract from their upcoming campaign and likely polarize Democratic loyalists against whatever a critic was saying, regardless of content. Even Bernie Sanders has become hesitant to obliquely criticize the Democratic Party as such, because of the instant backlash from Obama fans.
However, that's not the end of the story. The very terrain of political and policy debate among Democrats in 2019 is a tacit admission that the Obama presidency was a wrong turn to a great degree. Instead of building on the clearly lousy ObamaCare exchange model, most presidential candidates so far have endorsed Medicare-for-all, or at least the idea of expanding Medicare and Medicaid. Elizabeth Warren wants to give workers 40 percent of corporate board seats — which is hugely more radical than anything Obama ever did or proposed. Kirsten Gillibrand supports universal paid leave and postal banking, instead of Medicare and Social Security cuts to reduce the deficit. Cory Booker is talking about a quasi-social wealth fund for children, instead of tax cuts for companies who hire domestically. Kamala Harris is proposing big income boosts for the working and middle class. Even Joe Biden is considering free college.
The turn away from Obama-style policy can also be seen in what gets attention now. The new hotness in tax policy is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's 70 percent top marginal tax rate — over 30 percentage points above its highest rate during the Obama years. Instead of a disastrous "all of the above" energy policy, Democrats are debating how to slash domestic oil and gas production with a Green New Deal.
Politically, most Democrats have quietly abandoned Obama's asinine notion that America is crying out for a return to bipartisanship — in favor of the clearly correct view that defeating Republicans is what matters. Even the Democratic rank and file have ditched their traditional attachment to compromise, apparently radicalized by the ongoing disaster of the Trump presidency.
So while nobody is likely to want to hash out Obama's indefensible handouts to bankers or drill-baby-drill energy policy over the next two years, the political debate will still proceed as if everyone agrees they were a bad idea. Because they were.