About a month ago, Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign seemed to make a deliberate decision: turn the Democratic presidential primary into a referendum on the Obama presidency. The strategy makes quite a bit of sense, given that President Obama remains a very popular figure in Democratic circles, and Clinton, far more than Bernie Sanders, is in a position to claim the president’s mantle.
To that end, during one of the recent debates, Clinton not only celebrated Obama’s many accomplishments, the Clinton campaign also issued a press release, criticizing Sanders over multiple instances in which he distanced himself from the Obama administration. The independent senator, Team Clinton said, “has a troubling history of questioning President Obama and his achievements.”
As the Democratic race has intensified, this referendum has become an even more obvious fulcrum. The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent had a good piece on this late yesterday.
[T]he big picture here is that Sanders has gotten as far as he has by offering up a serious, if partial, indictment of the Obama years. He is arguing that Obama era reforms – Dodd-Frank, Obamacare, his climate agenda – ended up being woefully inadequate to the scale of our challenges, because he failed to sufficiently rally the grassroots against the power of the oligarchy and because the Democratic establishment still remains in thrall to oligarchic money.Clinton full-throatedly defends Obama’s accomplishments as very much worth preserving, rejects the Sanders-promulgated notion that Obama could have gotten a whole lot more than he did, and vows to build on those achievements. The bigger, more diverse, more moderate electorates in the contests to come might be more receptive to Clinton’s arguments along these lines.
I think that’s exactly right. For Democrats who believe the Obama era has been a great success, there’s no great appetite for a radical shift in direction. Clinton has an agenda of her own, but it intends to use Obama’s accomplishments as a foundation for progress.
For Democrats who believe the Obama era has fallen short, in part because the president’s agenda hasn’t been nearly as progressive or as bold as they’d like, Sanders is the more obvious choice – he doesn’t want to build on Obama’s record; the senator wants to replace that record with some vastly more ambitious.
There’s just one angle to this that I think has been largely overlooked: the irony.
Eight years ago, a similar dynamic unfolded in Democratic politics. Clinton mocked Obama as a dreamer whose rhetoric about “hope” and “change” wouldn’t amount to real, tangible results. In hindsight, whether you think that assessment was correct depends largely on, well, whether you’re a Clinton voter or a Sanders voter.
But for Sanders’ supporters, there’s an unstated twist. “I don’t like the way things turned out when we picked the inspirational idealist over the pragmatist,” they’re effectively arguing, “which is why this time I’m picking the inspirational idealist over the pragmatist.”