The Memo: Biden team's Obama criticisms draw some blowback

President BidenJoe BidenHouse Democrat threatens to vote against party's spending bill if HBCUs don't get more federal aid Overnight Defense & National Security — The Pentagon's deadly mistake Haitians stuck in Texas extend Biden's immigration woes MORE, who ran for the Democratic nomination last year as former President ObamaBarack Hussein Obama Chelsea Manning tests positive for COVID-19 The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by National Industries for the Blind - Tight security for Capitol rally; Biden agenda slows Obama backs Trudeau in Canadian election MORE’s closest ally, has recently begun voicing criticism of his predecessor. 

However mild the critiques might be, they risk being seen as nitpicking at the legacy of the most popular Democrat in the nation.

Biden has said that Obama was not assertive enough in selling his economic stimulus plan, which the 44th president signed into law in February 2009 amid a huge financial crisis. 

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Biden cast the problem as one in which Obama was too modest “and we paid a price for it, ironically — that humility.”

Others in Biden’s circle have argued that the Obama stimulus was too small — an error the current administration was adamant it would not make as it forged ahead with a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package.

Another, related critique is that Obama was too eager to get Republicans to sign on to his policy goals, from economic stimulus to the Affordable Care Act, when they had no real interest in doing so. Suggestions that he was naive in this effort have long irked the 44th president.

The turbulent crosscurrents between Biden and Obama — as well as the left of the Democratic Party, which has been skeptical of both men — made it onto the pages of The New York Times on Tuesday. 

Former Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) suggested that Democrats were too willing to make concessions at the start of the Obama presidency. 

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezOn The Money — Presented by Wells Fargo — Pelosi plows full speed ahead on jam-packed agenda Photos of the Week: Renewable energy, gymnast testimonies and a Met Gala dress Ocasio-Cortez, Bush push to add expanded unemployment in .5T spending plan MORE (D-N.Y.), while not criticizing Obama explicitly, said that she “came of age watching Democratic governance fail me and my family.”

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Those kinds of observations — especially the ones emanating from Biden’s circle — elicit a strong counterreaction from some.

“I think they are utterly unnecessary. I mean, what point are they proving? That was then and this is now,” said Democratic pollster and strategist Paul Maslin.

One of the most prevalent tendencies in politics is to keep fighting the last war. But to Obama’s defenders, like Maslin, that kind of approach sometimes amounts to pointless carping.

“We are in an entirely different situation, entirely different circumstances. No president is perfect. Maybe [Obama] could have pushed to do more. So what? It doesn’t matter,” Maslin said. “He had to do stopgap things to save the economy, which he did.”

The Obama-Biden relationship has always been a complicated one. The two have a genuine affection for each other, but it is also permeated by a strain of rivalry. 

Biden ran for the presidency himself in 2008 and got nowhere in a year when Obama and then-Sen. Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonAttorney charged in Durham investigation pleads not guilty Attorney indicted on charge of lying to FBI as part of Durham investigation Durham seeking indictment of lawyer with ties to Democrats: reports MORE (D-N.Y.) dominated the Democratic contest.

Obama went on to pick Biden as his running mate, of course. But even then, the Obama camp was irritated by Biden’s propensity to speak in an undisciplined way, while Biden loyalists would bridle when they thought their man was being treated condescendingly.

It has been widely reported that Obama discouraged Biden from running to succeed him in 2016, believing he would be a weaker candidate than Clinton. In 2020, Obama did not endorse any candidate during the most competitive phase of the primary.

Yet, for all that, friction between two presidents of the same party is not that unusual.

Obama’s own relationship with former President Clinton was uneasy. Clinton, while campaigning for his wife in the 2008 primary, had raised pointed — and racially loaded — critiques of Obama.

Obama, for his part, had said that he hoped to be a transformative president, citing the example of former President Reagan, whom he said had “changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonBusiness coalition aims to provide jobs to Afghan refugees Biden nominates ex-State Department official as Export-Import Bank leader Obamas, Bushes and Clintons joining new effort to help Afghan refugees MORE did not.”

“We shouldn’t be surprised at all” at the fact that there are some lingering tensions between the Biden and Obama camps, said Allan Lichtman, a history professor at American University.

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Still, Lichtman added, Biden loyalists “should tread carefully. There is very little to be gained from criticizing Obama, who in many ways was an extraordinarily successful president. The stimulus may not have been as extensive as one might have hoped, but he gets a lot of credit for saving the financial industry, saving the automotive industry and for the Affordable Care Act, which is probably the singular domestic achievement of Democrats since the days of Lyndon Johnson.”

Some Democrats seek to calm the waters, contending that Team Biden is really talking about learning lessons from the Obama era rather than criticizing the former president per se.

Democratic strategist Tad Devine recalled a conversation he had with a senior presidential adviser at the White House early in Obama’s tenure. Devine said he warned the top aide, regarding Republicans, that “I just don’t ever think these guys are going to play ball” — a viewpoint that was largely borne out.

But Devine added that, when it comes to looking back on that era, “I don’t view it as ‘infighting’ or ‘criticism.’ I think it’s much more about a recognition of what happened and taking that into account in terms of what we do now. Are we just going to let 50 Republicans filibuster, for example?”

The idea that there can be lessons learned from the Obama era is an uncontroversial one among Democrats. 

But Biden and his allies need to be careful about anything that tips into outright criticism — especially given the reverence in which Obama is held.

“The only person more popular than [Obama] in the country is his wife — and if she’s No. 1, he’s No. 2,” said Maslin. “Don’t waste time on undeserved, unfair criticisms. Just do your job.”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.