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Obama May Not Be Up For Election, But His Legacy Is

Former President Barack Obama has been taking a more vocal role in the 2020 presidential primary recently, and there's a fierce debate over whether any candidate can reconstruct the multiracial coalition that he built in 2008.
Michael Sohn

When Barack Obama stood in Chicago's Grant Park facing throngs of people in 2008 and declared that "change has come to America," Arielle Monroe was a freshman in college.

Obama was her generation's rock star, who swept away the nation's last remaining racial barrier in politics and inspired a multiracial, multigenerational coalition to support him.

"All different kinds of people related to this man, how we all believed in him," she said. "There was this whole message of hope — right? — in that it'll all get better for people who have grown up maybe not feeling that that's a possibility."

Now, with less than three months before Democratic voters begin to cast ballots to select their nominee, Monroe is one of many voters who hasn't yet found a candidate to inspire her in that same way.

"I'm not excited right now, but I hope to be soon," she said.

More than a decade after his election, which represented one of the most hopeful moments in American politics, a debate is breaking out among Democrats over Obama's legacy and which direction the party should go during a moment in which the historic divides Obama sought to bridge seem more vast than ever.

At a recent gathering of Democrats in Wyandotte County, Kan., Melissa Bynum said she wants to hear candidates paint a big-picture vision for the future. But she worried that some candidates weren't recognizing Obama's legacy.

"Well, I think that they need to make sure that they are acknowledging all of the good that he was able to accomplish in his eight years in the White House," she said.

She specifically mentioned health care, which has been one of the most animating issues of the Democratic presidential primary.

The debate over the direction in which the party should go spilled into public view during the November presidential debate, hosted by MSNBC and The Washington Post.

Early in the evening, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders was asked about Obama's recent remarks about the electorate, made at a Washington gathering of the Democracy Alliance.

"This is still a country that is less revolutionary than it is interested in improvement," Obama said during his Nov. 15 remarks, according to audio of his remarks that was captured off microphone. "They like seeing things improved. But the average American doesn't think that we have to completely tear down the system and remake it. And I think it's important for us not to lose sight of that."

Democratic strategist Joel Payne said Obama's comments were both an "implicit defense of the Obama years," as well as "a bit of the warning to the party to not lurch too far, in this instance, to the left."

They were also an apparent beginning of a more public role in the 2020 primary for Obama, who until recently had largely kept a low profile.

Sanders, who has campaigned on calls for a political revolution, was asked whether Obama was incorrect.

"No, he's right," Sanders said. "We don't have to tear down the system, but we do have to do what the American people want."

Then he segued into a defense of the "Medicare for All" single-payer proposal he's championed as a replacement to the Affordable Care Act.

During last week's debate, Democrats also tussled over who would be the best candidate to reinvigorate the multiracial, multigenerational cohort of voters whom Obama brought to the polls in 2008.

California Sen. Kamala Harris repeatedly, explicitly argued that she is the candidate "who has the ability to go toe-to-toe with Donald Trump and someone who has the ability to rebuild the Obama coalition and bring the party and the nation together."

Former Vice President Joe Biden said that he was "part of that Obama coalition," adding that he came "out of a black community, in terms of my support."

And South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg said he wants to build a coalition that includes not just left-leaning voters, but moderates and "future former Republicans," adding that "everybody is welcome in this movement that we're building."

But days before the debate, Paul Avila doubted that lightning could strike twice.

"Well, I'm not sure it's possible. That happened over a decade ago," he said when asked if any candidate in the race could rebuild the Obama coalition. "Things have changed a lot over the past 10 years. I don't see anybody yet that could be another Barack Obama."

Avila is still undecided in the 2020 race but says he's leaning toward supporting Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren or Sanders because they're "much more progressive, willing to take more chances in order to win." He also likes Buttigieg, who he described as "sharp as a tack."

But he was less bullish on Biden, who he says "is a little past his prime, and he also has some baggage that he's carrying around" from his Senate career.

When asked about Obama, Avila said that he was a "good president, but there were some things about his presidency that left a lot to be desired."

Florentino Camacho — who attended the Wyandotte County Democrats breakfast and lives in Kansas City, Mo. — said that Obama was one of the best presidents of his lifetime and praised him for being a president who fought for all Americans, something he said President Trump isn't doing.

But he worried that Democrats could be unprepared for the playbook Republicans will throw at them in the general election.

"I think they're doing good, but they have to start fighting as bad and as dirty as the Republicans," he said.

Gary Bradley-Lopez, 21, supported Hillary Clinton in 2016 and said that no current candidates are "bringing the kind of fire" that Clinton did that year, or that Obama did in the two prior elections.

He says his biggest priority in a candidate is that they be a woman or a person of color — he isn't interested in electing another white man. And he says that though he's "culturally" excited for candidates like Harris, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, he still doesn't know who he'll support.

"I'm not sure if there's a candidate that right. Like, 'Oh, I can't wait to go knock on doors for them' or 'I can't wait for them to be president,' " he said. "I'm not sure that candidate is even in the race yet."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.