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How Obama's Legacy Could Impact The 2020 Democratic Field


There was one Democrat not on the stage of this week's presidential debates whose name came up over and over again, and that would be former President Barack Obama.


KAMALA HARRIS: ...And Barack Obama...

JULIAN CASTRO: ...To President Barack Obama...

JOE BIDEN: ...Barack Obama.

DON LEMON: In the first two years of the Obama administration, nearly...

CORNISH: Several Democratic candidates relitigated policies of the Obama administration - health care, deportation numbers and trade agreements all were under scrutiny. Vice President Joe Biden, who's made claiming the Obama mantle a centerpiece of his campaign, fought back.


BIDEN: I hope the next debate we can talk about how we fix - our answers to fix the things that Trump has broken, not how Barack Obama made all these mistakes. He didn't. He didn't.

CORNISH: Joining us now to talk more about what this means for the party, we're joined by Terry McAuliffe. He was the governor of Virginia and led the Democratic National Committee. Welcome to the program.

TERRY MCAULIFFE: Thank you for having me on today.

CORNISH: So we heard the vice president there sounding fairly defensive, but if Biden's going to claim to be the heir to the Obama legacy, shouldn't he have to answer to these criticisms?

MCAULIFFE: He should, but I think it's a big mistake for the Democrats to be going after Joe Biden using President Obama's policies. President Obama has a 95% approval rating in the Democratic Party, and I just think it's a faulty strategy for these folks to be going after President Obama's policies. He was a great president. Democrats adore him, and they ought to focus on Trump.

CORNISH: But to interrupt you...


CORNISH: ...Literally every vice president who runs for president has to deal with the legacy, right? I mean...

MCAULIFFE: That's right.

CORNISH: ...That's part of the package.

MCAULIFFE: You bet. Sure. And it's part of the package. And I think it really is an advantage for Joe Biden that every time people hear that President Obama's being attacked, I think it goes to the vice president's - to his benefit. I think the Democrats ought to be spending their time on Trump and also putting out a positive message of where they stand on the issues.

CORNISH: Here's how Senator Cory Booker feels about this.


CORY BOOKER: Mr. Vice President, you can't have it both ways. 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.


CORNISH: So that was an applause line. It resonates with some people.

MCAULIFFE: Yep. Yep. And listen - they were talking at that point about the issue of deportations. I'm just really surprised that the vice president didn't say that the folks who were deported under President Obama were those that had broken a law while they were in our country. But, you know, listen - these folks all got to get their little breakout moment. I think it may help you in the short term; it will not help you in the long term trying to win the Democratic primary by using Barack Obama as a way to, you know, score points. I just don't think it works.

CORNISH: What does the conversation about Barack Obama tell you about the direction of where the Democratic Party has moved in the last several years?

MCAULIFFE: Well, it's a good question, and I think what we'll see through the primaries is, you know, where that direction of that party is going. I believe our party is moving, you know, in the right direction on the big issues. We...

CORNISH: But right is very general (laughter). I mean, as someone who has been in the positions you've been in...


CORNISH: ...I'm sure you can give me a more pointed answer. I mean, what is it that we're seeing when people critique this legacy?

MCAULIFFE: Well, they're critiquing the legacy on specific issues - Obamacare and on deportation. So it's very specific on two issues. I think most people are happy with Obamacare. It needed to be fixed and tweaked, but, you know, nearly 30 million more Americans have health insurance today.

CORNISH: But it does sound like there are some Democrats who are unsatisfied with the compromises that needed to be made to get there. Is that what's being hashed out before us now?

MCAULIFFE: I think so. But as I see it as it relates to Obamacare, it brought in a lot of new people into the system, but a lot of issues had to be dealt with. And I think there's frustration with folks out there today with health care.

CORNISH: Going forward, do you think that there could be any consequence to taking these kinds of shots at the Obama administration?

MCAULIFFE: I do, and I think probably Donald Trump loves the idea that Democrats are attacking President Obama's policies. I can guarantee you President Trump will use these. There is a danger. We need to be a unified party going against and trying to defeat an incumbent president. Now, I think we're going to beat Trump, but it's never going to be easy, and we should not be giving ammunition to Donald Trump to come back and fire at us.

CORNISH: That's Terry McAuliffe. He was governor of Virginia and chair of the DNC. His new book is called "Beyond Charlottesville: Taking A Stand Against White Nationalism."

Thank you for speaking with us.

MCAULIFFE: Audie, thank you very much - appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.