Barack Obama
Credit: Pete Souza/Flickr

When Barack Obama walked out of the White House for the last time, his approval rating among Democrats was 95 percent. To understand why, take a look at how Paul Glastris and I documented his top 50 accomplishments. But Obama would be the last one to suggest that future Democratic presidents should merely rest on his laurels. His favorite analogy was to compare the presidency to a relay race where he would eventually pass the baton on to the next runner.

One of the greatest tragedies of American history is that the next runner happened to be Donald Trump, who has not only failed to pick up the mantle, but has done everything in his power to run backwards. Electing a Democratic House was the first step in getting things back on track, but presidential candidates are about to line up in an effort to be the one who takes the baton and gets things moving in the right direction again.

Aside from the particular personalities of those who will announce their candidacies in the next couple of months, there is a question being asked about whether Democrats should go back to the kind of presidency we had with Obama. That is most often posed by supporters of Bernie Sanders, who compare Beto O’Rourke to Barack Obama and think that a repeat would be a mistake.

There is an inherent problem with this comparison. If the next Democratic president’s job is to carry the baton forward, it isn’t about repeating the accomplishments of the former president. So the question is really about whether or not to build on those successes or critique them as weak tea that needs to be thrown out so we can start from scratch.

David Sirota is one of the people who has been speaking out against a potential candidacy by O’Rourke. He recently wrote a column titled, “Beto O’Rourke is the new Obama. And that’s the last thing we need.” Given that the former president left office with a 95 percent approval rating among Democrats, Sirota might have just unwittingly given the Texas congressman’s chances a big boost by suggesting he is the “new Obama.” But it is worth unpacking some of the specifics he used to make the comparison.

The first item on Sirota’s list of how the former president’s legacy should be rejected has to do with Obamacare, which he sees as a giant giveaway to the insurance industry—never mentioning that one of the provisions is to limit the amount of money that goes to profits and administration to under 15 percent of premiums collected. Sirota also ignores that it was Republican threats to repeal and replace Obamacare that ignited much of the resistance that fueled Democratic gains in the 2018 midterm elections.

However, going forward, all potential Democratic candidates will take up the baton of getting to universal healthcare. Many of their proposals will build on Obamacare as a way to get there, while a few (i.e., Bernie Sanders) would throw the whole thing out and start over with single payer. That will be the choice that Democrats face between candidates in the presidential primary.

Sirota also critiques Obama’s performance on addressing climate change. He simply refers to “somewhat tougher emissions and efficiency standards” and never mentions the Paris Climate Accord or the clean energy investments that were included in the 2009 recovery act. All of that is most interesting in light of a major story published in the New York Times on Thursday.

Since Mr. Trump took office, his approach on the environment has been to neutralize the most rigorous Obama-era restrictions, nearly 80 of which have been blocked, delayed or targeted for repeal, according to an analysis of data by The New York Times.

With this running start, Mr. Trump is already on track to leave an indelible mark on the American landscape, even with a decline in some major pollutants from the ever-shrinking coal industry. While Washington has been consumed by scandals surrounding the president’s top officials on environmental policy — both the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Interior secretary have been driven from his cabinet — Mr. Trump’s vision is taking root in places as diverse as rural California, urban Texas, West Virginian coal country and North Dakota’s energy corridor.

While the Obama administration sought to tackle pollution problems in all four states and nationally, Mr. Trump’s regulatory ambitions extend beyond Republican distaste for what they considered unilateral overreach by his Democratic predecessor; pursuing them in full force, Mr. Trump would shift the debate about the environment sharply in the direction of industry interests, further unraveling what had been, before the Obama administration, a loose bipartisan consensus dating in part to the Nixon administration.

The number one priority on climate change is to reverse Trump’s efforts to go backwards and start going forward again. When it comes to passing the baton on this one, here’s what Obama said prior to the signing of the Paris Climate Accord:

And the key for Paris is just to make sure that everybody is locked in, saying, “We’re going to do this.” Once we get to that point, then we can turn the dials. But there will be a momentum that is built, and I’m confident that we will then be in a position to listen more carefully to the science — partly because people, I think, will be not as fearful of the consequences or as cynical about what can be achieved. Hope builds on itself. Success breeds success.

The question Democratic voters will face in the 2020 presidential primary isn’t about whether or not to go back to the Obama era, it is, rather, how best to continue to move the ball forward. Does it mean trashing the previous president’s record and starting from scratch? Or does it mean building on his accomplishments?

Underneath those questions are the assumptions about a candidate’s theory of change, especially in a democracy. This is one of the key areas where Beto O’Rourke is actually pretty similar to Obama. Here’s what he wrote recently about the current government shutdown:

But my concern for the country goes beyond the immediate pain and dysfunction that this shutdown will cause. Beyond even ensuring that this President is held accountable. What’s happening now is part of a larger threat to us all.

If our institutions no longer work, if we no longer have faith in them, if there’s no way to count on government even functioning (three shutdowns this year alone), then perhaps ultimately we become open to something else. Whatever we choose to call it, whether we openly acknowledge it at all, my fear is that we will choose certainty, strength and predictability over this constant dysfunction, even if it comes at the price of our democracy (the press; the ballot box; the courts; congress and representative government)…

If ever there was a time to put country over party it is now. This is not about a wall, it’s not about border security, it’s not about Democrats and Republicans. It’s about the future of our country – whether our children and grandchildren will thank us or blame us. Whether we will lose what was fought for, made more perfect, by the men and women who risked and lost their lives at Antietam, on Omaha beach, in Jackson, Mississippi… whether we will be defined by greatness and ambition or pettiness and fear. Whether we will continue to live in the world’s greatest democracy, or something else.

How we approach the challenges we currently face is as important as tackling them. Even more so than during the Obama presidency, our democratic institutions are threatened and they are the only thing that separates us from tyranny. While it is tempting to look at people like Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell with an eye towards giving back as good as they’ve dished out, it is critical that Democrats reject any and all anti-democratic strategies that have been employed and remind voters that tyranny is never the answer—no matter how angry or scared we are.

I believe that is something that all potential Democratic candidates will embrace, but it needs to be clearly communicated and offered to voters as the alternative to what we’ve seen from Trump and Republicans. That could be the most important way the baton is passed forward from Obama, who never veered from placing the survival of our democratic institutions above everything else. In other words, he always put country before party.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Follow Nancy on Twitter @Smartypants60.