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

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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.

“Obama is potentially a strong unifier once we get past the convention,” Charney said. “He remains a symbol of the kind of Democrat that’s smart, respectable… a West Wing come to life.”

Setting a digital precedent

On the campaign trail, Obama’s handling of what was then called “new media”—social platforms such as Facebook—was instrumental in gaining footholds in areas where campaigns previously had blind spots.

Current presidential hopefuls have also learned to make online investments. On Facebook alone, former Bloomberg has spent the most this year on advertising, at $50.5 million. Billionaire Tom Steyer, who has spent the second most on advertising on Facebook, shelled out over $7 million, according to Facebook.

And Democrats aren’t just using the platforms for advertising. Sanders appears on Twitch to broadcast his town halls and rallies, and appeared on The Joe Rogan Experience podcast. Andrew Yang used the platform Discord to grow a cult following.

In 2008, the Obama campaign welcomed supporters to organize digitally. Now, there’s the Bern app, Bernie Sanders’ organizational tool that helps supporters digitally rally their own networks and communities.

“[Digital organizing] helped us in rural areas, or where the campaign might not have an office but people had energy and wanted to organize,” Aniskoff said.

Biden’s reliance on the Obama brand has been instrumental to the success he’s had so far, giving him appeal by association, according to Charney, particularly with the African American community. “To speak in marketing terms, Biden has presented himself as a sub-brand of the Obama brand,” he said. “He needs to move beyond that and present people a compelling candidacy.”

Although anything is still possible, Sanders and his movement have yet to co-opt the Obama brand. Neither has Warren who, despite falling in the polls from 28% to 15% according to Quinnipiac, has clearly branded herself as the candidate ready to hit the ground running, tossing the slogan “Warren has a plan for that!” on day-planners, koozies, pencils and posters.

Irked by many Democrats at the time, Sanders’ campaign in 2016 and his ability to hit the same high notes at every stump speech has raised his national profile and established his brand in his own voice as a defender of the working class and minorities, while standing against corporate greed.

“Bernie’s not running as Obama’s third term,” Charney said, presenting himself as a candidate for a new generation—not anti- or pro-Obama, but post-Obama. “It’s remarkable that a man in his 70s has pulled that off, but he has.

“This isn’t the year for hope. It’s the year of anger and frustration.”

@RyanBarwick Ryan is a brand reporter covering travel, mobility and sports marketing.