Candidates in Obama's orbit fail to capitalize on personal ties

Former President Obama may be the most popular Democrat, but the presidential candidates in his orbit have all but fizzled in their quest for the White House. 

There's Joe BidenJoe BidenHarris to host virtual Hollywood campaign event co-chaired by Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling Trump plans to accept Republican nomination from White House lawn US seizes four vessels loaded with Iranian fuel MORE, Obama's vice president, and his friend, former Massachusetts Gov. Deval PatrickDeval PatrickIt's as if a Trump operative infiltrated the Democratic primary process Top Democratic super PACs team up to boost Biden Andrew Yang endorses Biden in 2020 race MORE. Both Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenChris Wallace: Trump struggling with attacks on 'shape-shifter' Harris Markey riffs on JFK quote in new ad touting progressive bona fides Howard Kurtz: Kamala Harris 'getting walk on water coverage' by media after VP pick MORE (D-Mass.) and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro served in his administration.

At one point or another in the 2020 campaign, all have touted their relationship with the former president in speeches, campaign videos and town hall appearances.

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And it hasn't made much difference.

"You can talk a lot about Obama, but you're still not Obama," said Democratic strategist Eddie Vale. "He was a fantastic candidate, campaigner and orator. No matter how much you interacted with him or praise him now, that still doesn't give you his innate talents.”

“If I put on a Bulls jersey, that doesn't make me Michael Jordan," Vale added.

Behind closed doors, Obama has counseled a number of candidates about their campaigns, offering advice from his successful 2008 White House bid and 2012 reelection.

The 44th president has occasionally weighed in on the 2020 race, as he did in November when he asked Democrats to “chill out” and refrain from giving candidates purity tests. He also said voters would be turned off by calls for sweeping change.

“Even as we push the envelope and we are bold in our vision, we also have to be rooted in reality,” Obama told a group of donors in November, according to The New York Times. “The average American doesn’t think we have to completely tear down the system and remake it.”

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Obama has stated time and again that he won’t be endorsing any of the candidates during the Democratic primary — prompting questions about why he wouldn’t back his former vice president during the nominating process.

Biden told reporters on the day he launched his campaign that he specifically asked Obama “not to endorse.”

“Whoever wins this nomination should win it on their own merits,” Biden said. 

Most of those in Obama World also have not backed Biden and have largely gone in different directions.

Early on, a number of senior Obama aides said former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) was reminiscent of their former boss, inspiring a large movement of support for the Texas Democrat.

“I have never seen a Senate candidate—including Obama in 2004—inspire the sort of enthusiasm that Beto did in his race,” Dan Pfeiffer, Obama’s former senior adviser, wrote about O’Rourke’s Senate bid in 2018. “Not only should Beto run, there is a strong case to make that if he were to do so, he would be one of the strongest candidates in the field.” 

But O’Rourke ended his campaign in November after he failed to gain traction. Patrick, a late entry into the field of candidates, ended his long-shot bid last week.

Even with their former boss staying silent on the election, several former Obama aides have thrown their support behind Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - The choice: Biden-Harris vs. Trump-Pence California Democrats back Yang after he expresses disappointment over initial DNC lineup Obamas, Clintons to headline Biden's nominating convention MORE, another candidate drawing comparisons to Obama from some Democrats.

The former South Bend, Ind., mayor has the backing of Obama’s longtime personal aide Reggie Love; Austan Goolsbee, Obama’s chairman of the Council on Economic Advisers; and Linda Douglass, who served as a communications aide for Obama.

While Buttigieg doesn’t have a close relationship with the former president, he has tried to depict an Obama-like presence on the campaign trail. Last week, he was forced to defend himself against Biden, who told reporters, “This guy is not a Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaUS blocking private charter flights to Cuba Biden, Harris to address Democratic convention from Chase Center in Delaware Kamala Harris is now under the protection of Secret Service: report MORE.” 

“Well, he’s right. I’m not, and neither is he,” Buttigieg fired back on CNN. 

One candidate who has been climbing in the polls while touting his ties to Obama is former New York City Mayor Michael BloombergMichael BloombergThe Hill's Campaign Report: Trump threatens Postal Service funding l Biden proposes national mask mandate l Democratic convention takes shape Bloomberg to speak at Democratic convention Everytown on the NRA lawsuit: 'Come November, we're going to make sure they're out of power, too' MORE

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The billionaire candidate recently aired a TV ad that opens with Obama introducing Bloomberg at a 2013 event: “At a time when Washington is divided in old ideological battles, he shows us what can be achieved when we bring people together to seek pragmatic solutions.” 

But some Democrats point out that the Obama connections didn’t help former Secretary of State Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonUSPS warns Pennsylvania mail-in ballots may not be delivered in time to be counted Senate leaves until September without coronavirus relief deal Gloria Steinem: Selection of Kamala Harris recognizes that 'black women ... are the heart and soul of the Democratic Party' MORE in 2016, when she closely tied herself to her former boss, campaigning alongside him until the final hours of the race. 

“Hillary Clinton in 2016 was the ultimate proxy test of whether you can transfer the Obama ID,” said Democratic strategist Joel Payne, who worked on Clinton’s 2016 campaign. “That was, in large part, our strategy. And it did not work.”

More broadly, Payne added, “I’m not sure if that works with any politician any more. Gone is the era of Reagan Republicans and FDR Democrats.”

“Today, successful politicians are mostly singular entities that have a difficult time extending their brand when they are not themselves on the ballot,” he said. 

Payne said the same applies to the successful coalition Obama built during his two presidential campaigns. 

“In terms of electoral success, you cannot replicate the Obama coalition and what it represented,” he said. “That coalition has yet to be successfully transferred to any other politician in Obama’s orbit. Not Hillary Clinton. Not Joe Biden. Not anyone.”