How the 2020 Presidential Candidates Are Grappling With Obama’s Legacy

Former president's strategies are visible in Democratic hopefuls

obama waving with the democratic candidates below him
Barack Obama is a towering presence over the Democratic race for the presidential nomination.
Photo Collage: Aanya Gupta; Sources: Getty Images

Key insights:

Save for a fiery couple of weeks during the midterm elections, Barack Obama has enjoyed a relatively quiet retirement. With a Netflix deal already signed, one can see the former two-term president toiling away at his much-anticipated memoir but otherwise staying out of the political limelight.

The Democratic party can’t say the same. As it continues to grapple with its identity and political ideals, the 2020 candidates are also figuring out how to follow in Obama’s footsteps to the presidency.

To candidates running in this election, Obama serves as an aspirational brand and a reminder of a less chaotic moment in American politics, political experts told Adweek.

In many states, Obama is featured in candidates’ commercials, and Joe Biden often invokes his experience in office by sharing more about his time spent as Obama’s vice president. Others have gone so far as to mirror Obama’s speaking style—and have been called out for it, too, like when earlier this week an edited video showed former South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg using the same (exact) language as Obama.

Meanwhile, a digital ad for the former mayor of New York City, Mike Bloomberg, appeared to show Obama endorsing Bloomberg, which was seen as so misleading that the Biden campaign cried foul.

While Obama has yet to formally endorse a candidate in the 2020 presidential election, his shadow lingers over the entire race and crowded Democratic primary in both strategy and syntax.

“He is by far the most popular figure among Democrats, and even amongst the general public,” said Craig Charney, a political scientist who worked on former President Bill Clinton’s campaign in 1996. “The most common factor is that he was someone who is highly respected, an impressive person, highly intelligent, not an embarrassment.”

Living up to a towering figure

The Obama brand (“Hope-y change-y,” to quote Sarah Palin), both on the campaign trail and in office endures in part because of his record in office. After leaving with relatively solid approval ratings, within a year more than 44% of Americans considered him to be the first or second-best president in their lifetimes.

Candidates would be smart to align themselves with such a legacy. “Obama’s such a safe bet. He works for the primary, but he also works for the general election,” said Paulette Aniskoff, who worked on Obama’s first presidential campaign in 2008. “It’s hard to avoid so if you can use it to your advantage, why not? If I were advising [2020 candidates], I would never run away from Barack Obama.”

It helps that as the Democratic party has shifted left—dragged by the current frontrunners, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren—Obama’s policies seem less radical today.

Policy under Obama, like the Affordable Care Act and the Paris Climate Agreement, seem “a lot more moderate” compared to the ideologies expressed on the 2020 campaign trail, according to Brian Sheehan, a marketing professor at Syracuse University.

But by evoking Obama, it “allows a candidate to establish that they’re not as far left as Sanders or Warren, but that they’re progressive, not just middle of the road Democrats.”

This rhetoric is much more commonplace than it was in 2016, when Obama campaigned for Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, formally endorsing Clinton after it was all but assured that Sander and his more aggressive agenda wouldn’t get the nomination. In fact, many predicted that Clinton’s first term would be “a third term for Obama.”

That didn’t happen, and as a result Obama’s brand is even more exalted, especially in juxtaposition against the long crafted pyritic sheen of President Donald Trump. Like his showing during the 2018 midterms, where Obama formally offered more than 340 endorsements and hit the trail in Georgia, California and Florida, many political analysts believe Obama is “keeping his powder dry” for the fall.

Recommended articles