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Why Democratic Attacks on Obama Will Boomerang

Outside the Beltway he is still beloved. Candidates should heed this before swiping at his legacy to get at Biden.

Political commentator David Harsanyi has offered a cogent analysis of why Democratic presidential candidates now feel free to attack Barack Obama’s legacy. Despite the former president’s approval rating (which, according to Gallup, is 60 percent among Americans generally and 90 percent among Democrats), he really didn’t get much done.

According to Harsanyi, despite “the hagiographic treatment from most of the media while in office,” Obama “presided over the slowest economic recovery in American history, and his most notable legislation, the Affordable Care Act, produced a divisiveness that paralyzed Washington for years.”

Moreover, writes Harsanyi, “while Reagan’s biggest successes were girded by national consensus—he won 49 states in 1984—Obama lost more than 1,000 seats on every level of government while leading his party to minimal policy gains.”

The candidates taking swipes at Obama now are obviously doing so in order to “dislodge Biden from his perch,” says Harsanyi. Biden has tirelessly played up this association with the ex-president in order to establish his lead among Democratic presidential contenders. Even if his competitors were not lurching to the Left in order to attract Millennials and white progressives, they’d still be going after the frontrunner. And since Biden’s best card seems to be his identification with a popular former president, Obama’s political reputation has become a target for Democrats with their eyes on the prize. 

Those who are pursuing this course, however, may be in for a rude awakening. In the face of these attacks on the Obama administration, Biden’s poll numbers have remained steady: he’s still about 20 points ahead of the rest of the pack. The reason for that is not Biden’s gift for repartee or acumen as a debater. Least of all would I attribute it to the sweetness and light that Peggy Noonan seems to find in him. I also don’t understand the effort to depict Biden as a “moderate,” since over the last few months he’s obligingly caved in to almost all the same social positions as the “radicals” in his party. He kissed up to that toxic race hustler Reverend Al. He even expressed regret in an interview with Sharpton for having once worked on shared legislative interests with his former segregationist colleagues in the Senate. Not surprisingly, Sharpton complained that Biden’s “apology” took all of two weeks after he’d initially brought up these collaborations.

But Biden is not likely to go down in the polls as long as he continues to enjoy 53 percent of the support of black voters. And particularly in Southern states where blacks make up half or more of registered Democratic voters, he is well ahead of his rivals. Moreover, the Democratic presidential candidates who are belittling Obama are banging their heads into a concrete wall. According to an extensive poll conducted by Yougov, Barack and Michelle Obama are “the most admired man and woman in the US.“ Questioning the divinity of our new holy family comes at a considerable risk, and Kamala, Liz, Pete, Bernie, and the others may want to take this into account before swinging away at the Obama legacy. 

Whatever has produced this Obama worship, it seems unrelated to his actual record as president, which Harsanyi seems charitable in outlining. This surging popularity may be closely related to the demonization of Trump, a sport energetically pursued by the overwhelmingly leftist media in all Western countries since the Donald’s election. Needless to say, Trump’s verbal intemperance has given his character assassins lots to work with. I also doubt that black voters adore the former president simply because he’s half African-American. Clarence Thomas, Ben Carson, and other black Republicans do not enjoy much favor among those of their race. The fact is, Obama was a Democrat positioned in the left wing of his party as a presidential candidate and as president may have helped his image among American blacks. 

This makes it hard to convince black voters and perhaps much of the white Left that Obama was some kind of reactionary who happily deported illegals (indeed in far greater numbers than his successor) and who separated children from their parents after they illegally crossed the border. 

For the media, Obama remains the god to Trump’s demon, and it may be irrelevant that the economic picture has vastly improved for racial minorities since Obama left. Here we are talking not about reality but about images. And the media have been so incredibly successful in their hagiographical depiction of the former first family—partly as a means of demonizing Trump—that it may now be impossible for a Democratic presidential candidate to question that image without committing political suicide. 

The Democratic presidential hopefuls should take this into account before swinging away at the Obama legacy. They may have to heap praise on Trump’s predecessor lest they concede more ground to Sleepy Joe.

Paul Gottfried is Raffensperger Professor of Humanities Emeritus at Elizabethtown College, where he taught for 25 years. He is a Guggenheim recipient and a Yale Ph.D. He is the author of 13 books, most recently Fascism: Career of a Concept and Revisions and Dissents.