There is a new wedge issue in the Democratic presidential primary: Whether or not it is fair game to question the legacy of President Barack Obama, who is perhaps the most respected and unifying figure in the party.
That issue emerged in Wednesday’s debate when several candidates used elements of the Obama record to attack Joseph R. Biden Jr., who was Mr. Obama’s vice president and is now the early poll-leader in the 2020 Democratic primary.
Mr. Biden has deliberately positioned himself as Mr. Obama’s chief defender and ally in the race, and on Thursday he pushed back against the criticism.
“I must tell you, I was a little surprised at how much incoming there was about Barack, about the president,” he told reporters in Detroit Thursday. “I’m proud of having served with him, I’m proud of the job he did. I don’t think there’s anything he has to apologize for, and I think, you know, it kind of surprised me, the degree of criticism.”
While no candidate laced into Mr. Obama directly on Wednesday, some — including Julián Castro, the only Latino in the race who was also a part of the Obama administration — were openly critical of the deportation practices the Obama administration employed. Others suggested that the Affordable Care Act, Mr. Obama’s signature health care law, was not sufficiently far-reaching.
The moment revealed that support for the Obama legacy, and assumptions in the Biden camp about its enduring appeal, are hardly assured within today’s increasingly progressive Democratic Party.
But it also carried risks for both Mr. Biden and his critics.
For the Democratic candidates willing to draw explicit contrasts with the last Democratic presidential administration, there is the possibility that African-American voters will bristle at perceived attacks on the first black president. There is also the chance that Democratic voters more broadly grow frustrated with relitigating elements of the Obama era, for which many are nostalgic, given what they see as the far more dangerous excesses of the Trump administration.
But embracing the Obama legacy and making it a focal point of his message is no sure winner for Mr. Biden, either. Hillary Clinton, who served in Mr. Obama’s administration as secretary of state, also sought to seize the Obama mantle. But she struggled to energize the young and more progressive voters, as well as some voters of color, who had been key elements of the Obama coalition.
Given how closely Mr. Biden has associated himself with the former president, in moments when he does want to suggest evolution, he faces a significant challenge.
When pressed Wednesday night about whether he personally had spoken up about deportations, Mr. Biden demurred, drawing a challenge from Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey that seemed to crystallize Mr. Biden’s Obama quandary.
“Mr. Vice President, you can’t have it both ways,” Mr. Booker said. “You invoke President Obama more than anybody in this campaign. You can’t do it when it’s convenient. And then dodge it when it’s not.”