Will Obama choose his legacy or party in 2020?

Will Obama choose his legacy or party in 2020?
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With Democrats’ 2020 presidential debates beginning, President Obama must choose his legacy or his party. Democrats’ crowded and shifting field has just one constant: Its leftward rush. As Democrats’ most respected leader, only Obama could possibly pull his party back from repeating its 1972 debacle. 

Almost half a century ago, Democrats self-immolated, igniting the left and disastrously nominating Sen. George McGovern (D-S.D.) to lead them into an inferno. President Nixon — who squeaked into the White House four years earlier — won 49 states and over 60 percent of the popular vote. 

Today’s Democrats seem determined to make history repeat itself. To many, President TrumpDonald John TrumpWarren: Dershowitz presentation 'nonsensical,' 'could not follow it' Bolton told Barr he was concerned Trump did favors for autocrats: report Dershowitz: Bolton allegations would not constitute impeachable offense MORE is already Nixon, yet they are well on their leftward way to nominating McGovern again. Former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenWarren: Dershowitz presentation 'nonsensical,' 'could not follow it' Bolton told Barr he was concerned Trump did favors for autocrats: report Dershowitz: Bolton allegations would not constitute impeachable offense MORE is more than capable of reprising that role, despite attempts to highlight his establishment credentials. And Democrats are quite able to go further left: Biden currently attracts less than one-third (just 31.9 percent according to Real Clear Politics’ national polling average) of Democrats, so either the left coalesces around one of its own, or Biden attracts substantially more from the left in order to win the nomination.


In 1972, Democrats had no one to save them from themselves — JFK was dead and LBJ a pariah. Today in Obama, Democrats have an unequaled party elder. No other Democratic presidential candidate has won consecutive popular vote majorities since FDR, and no other has won as large a percentage since LBJ.  

“Obama left” suddenly looks moderate in comparison to his party, and Obama commands the crucial black vote. He is the only Democrat whose stature extends outside the party and no historical Democratic figure can pass muster under its current standards.

If Democrats’ potential savior is clear, then their need of potential saving is even clearer. Moving further left takes the party away from the independents and moderates who will decide 2020. Yet, their left-centric field and its crowded nature make “more left” more likely.

A less desirable nominee is more likely because securing the Democratic nomination will mean a fight to get attention, with the more controversial getting it. Democrats’ proportional awarding of primary delegates likely assures a long contest — witness Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersGOP Iowa senator suggests Trump impeachment defense could hurt Biden at caucuses On The Money: Stocks close with steep losses driven by coronavirus fears | Tax season could bring more refund confusion | Trump's new wins for farmers may not undo trade damage Sanders launches first TV ads in Nevada MORE’ (I-Vt.) 2016 staying power in just a two-person race. A long, contentious, controversial contest means burning up large amounts of cash — and bridges with alienated primary voters of losing contenders.  

However, if Democrats have a lot to lose in 2020, so too does Obama. Obama clearly cherishes his legacy — arguably even above his presidency when he held it. 


Additionally, Obama has already meddled in presidential primary politics. Many now forget (or at least forgive) that he chose Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonDershowitz: Bolton allegations would not constitute impeachable offense Hillicon Valley — Presented by Philip Morris International — NFL social media accounts hacked | Dem questions border chief over controversial Facebook group | Clinton says Zuckerberg has 'authoritarian' views Clinton on Sanders comments: 'I wasn't thinking about the election' MORE over Biden for 2016. Favoring Biden now would again take him down that establishment road. He would risk becoming “establishment” himself — instead of remaining “above” the party’s divisions as he is now.

Becoming “establishment” has many perils for Obama. Just look what it has done for the Clintons. It means a one-way ticket to Democrats’ version of Madam Tussauds — a wax figure only rolled out for photo-ops. That is not a legacy, but an effigy.

Next year could well be like yesteryear for the Democrats. Only one establishment politician — currently supported by less than one-third of the party — and their former president stand between 2020 becoming a leftward lurch, like 1972. Far from stopping it, Biden may well find himself stampeded into leading the rush left.

That leaves only Obama to stem the tide. Looking back to 1972, it is clear what could happen if he chooses not to — Democrats turned Nixon from lucky to landslide in four years and lost five of the next six presidential elections. It is also clear what a vindictive party could do to Obama if he backed another establishment nominee who lost to Trump. What is unclear is whether Obama will feel a greater attachment to his legacy or his party.

J.T. Young served under President George W. Bush as the director of communications in the Office of Management and Budget and as deputy assistant secretary in legislative affairs for tax and budget at the Treasury Department. He served as a congressional staffer from 1987-2000.