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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 BidenTrump says he'll leave White House if Biden declared winner of Electoral College The Memo: Biden faces tough road on pledge to heal nation US records 2,300 COVID-19 deaths as pandemic rises with holidays MORE, Obama's vice president, and his friend, former Massachusetts Gov. Deval PatrickDeval PatrickThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the UAE Embassy in Washington, DC - Calls mount to start transition as Biden readies Cabinet picks Merrick Garland on list to be Biden's attorney general: report Ralph Gants, chief justice of Massachusetts supreme court, dies at 65 MORE. Both Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenThe Memo: Biden faces tough road on pledge to heal nation Disney laying off 32,000 workers as coronavirus batters theme parks Kamala Harris, Stacey Abrams among nominees for Time magazine's 2020 Person of the Year 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 Buttigieg'Biff is president': Michael J. Fox says Trump has played on 'every worst instinct in mankind' Buttigieg: Denying Biden intelligence briefings is about protecting Trump's 'ego' Biden's win is not a policy mandate — he should govern accordingly 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 ObamaObama: Republican Party members believe 'white males are victims' Texas warehouse where migrants housed in 'cages' closed for humane renovation North Carolina — still purple but up for grabs 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 BloombergBiden's great challenge: Build an economy for long-term prosperity and security The secret weapon in Biden's fight against climate change Sanders celebrates Biden-Harris victory: 'Thank God democracy won out' 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 ClintonTrump says he'll leave White House if Biden declared winner of Electoral College Federal workers stuck it out with Trump — now, we're ready to get back to work Biden soars as leader of the free world 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.”