When I saw that Ryan Lizza had written an article arguing that the true winner of the Democratic presidential primaries was Barack Obama, I assumed he meant that his most ardent supporters had decided the contest. Obama has many enthusiastic fans in the party, but none more so than the black voters who rallied to Joe Biden and that mostly rejected Bernie Sanders, and even black candidates Kamala Harris and Cory Booker.
It’s true, as Lizza says, that Obama stayed rigidly neutral in the race, hoping to use his political capital on uniting the party after the nominee was selected. But his camp made it clear that he was opposed to Sanders, and everyone knows that he loves Joe. Voters picked up on that, and loyalty to Obama transferred to loyalty to Biden.
Yet, Lizza didn’t make this argument. He didn’t even mention black voters in his piece. He says that Obama and Obama-ism won, but beyond Biden being a member of his administration, it’s not clear why Lizza thinks Obama should be considered the winner. His argument sounds like Obama won simply by not losing, “Obama has survived one crucial test. A presidential primary is often a referendum on the party’s last president.”
In other words, had Sanders won the nomination, it would have been a refutation of Obama’s presidency, but not losing is not the same as being the true winner.
Throughout this campaign, I’ve struggled with the left-wing critique of Biden, which focuses exclusively on his time as a U.S. Senator. I always had the impression that Biden was remolded by his experience with and almost fandom of Obama. Their relationship wasn’t an equal one, despite Biden’s older age and deeper experience. Obama served as more of a mentor than the other way around, perhaps nowhere more so than in his attitude and approach to politics. I suspect that a President Biden will spend a lot of time asking himself what Obama would have done in a similar situation, and then following that path. Sometimes I worry that Biden thinks he can avoid some of the resistance Obama faced from Republicans because he won’t face the racism that caused an unspannable chasm. Hopefully, the way the GOP has gone after his son Hunter has disabused him of that optimism. Still, Obama never stopped trying to bridge the gulf, and he benefitted by always looking like the adult in the room. That, too, is consistent with Biden’s instincts.
Based on his proposals, Biden is running to the left of both Obama and Hillary Clinton, and I don’t think this makes him uncomfortable. You’d never suspect that if you held him to his attitude to busing in the 1970s or bankruptcy reform in the Bush Era. As for Obama, he worked with the Congresses he had, not the ones he might have wished to have had, and he too would be running a campaign far to the left of the ones he ran in 2008 and 2012. He was a pragmatist on both the campaign trail (opposing an unpopular mandate to buy health insurance) and in office (jettisoning a public option to get Obamacare passed, while adopting the mandate).
The times may call for New Deal-sized policies to deal with mass unemployment and an unprecedented health care crisis, but pragmatism will still determine whether things pass or do not. Biden is no more likely than Obama to let the perfect be the enemy of the good, and in that sense he will carry on the tradition and style of Obamaism. If that makes Obama a winner, that’s something we should all be pleased about.
To really make him a winner, his wife Michelle will have to agree to join the ticket. Everyone who knows hers says that she’ll never do it, but she’s the most gifted speaker in the party and probably the most popular member, too. Nothing would obliterate Trump’s ego and accomplishment like losing to an Obama. It’s almost too savory to pass up.
Maybe Michelle will see it the same way.