WASHINGTON – Joe Biden came to Barack Obama’s defense Thursday after Democratic presidential candidates’ sharp critiques of the popular former president’s legacy during the second presidential debate.
“I was a little surprised at how much incoming there was about Barack, about the president,” Biden told reporters Thursday in Detroit. “I’m proud of having served with him, I’m proud of the job he did, I don’t think there’s anything he has to apologize for. And it kind of surprised me, the degree of the criticism.”
Biden, who held his ground and fought to solidify his front-runner status in Wednesday’s debate, said he hoped the next round would focus on President Donald Trump, whom all the candidates hope to defeat in November 2020.
The former vice president’s remarks came after some Democratic candidates questioned whether Obama’s health care or climate policies were bold enough, and whether he made mistakes on immigration. The debate pits party establishment members, like Biden, who wants to build on the policies of Obama against progressives hungry for dramatic change, like Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and several others.
The dynamic also has implications in the battle for African American voters, who are protective of the first black president, and currently support Biden in large numbers. Obama remains very popular among Democrats, and the 2020 candidates generally avoid criticizing him by name. Lackluster black Democratic turnout was one factor that cost 2016 Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton the election.
Obama left office in January 2017 with a 59 percent approval rating, according to Gallup polling. In June of that year, 95 percent of Democrats said they had a favorable view of him.
That didn’t stop some candidates in Wednesday’s debate from criticizing his record.
“It looks like one of us has learned the lessons of the past and one of us hasn’t,” Julian Castro told Biden when the former vice president rejected his proposal to decriminalize unauthorized border-crossings.
Castro, who was HUD secretary in the Obama administration, said reducing the act to a civil violation was the only surefire way to stop family separation policies under Trump. Biden disagreed and said it should be “a crime.”
Bill de Blasio demanded to know whether Biden opposed the record deportations during Obama’s first term.
“Did you say those deportations were a good idea or did you go to the president and say, ‘This is a mistake, we shouldn’t do it.’ Which one?” he asked Biden, who refused to divulge any conversations with the president, and suggested he shouldn’t be blamed for the president’s decisions.
That prompted Cory Booker to chime in: “Mr. Vice President, you can’t have it both ways. You invoke President Obama more than anybody in this campaign. You can’t do it when it’s convenient and then dodge it when it’s not.”
In a back-and-forth with Biden on climate change, Jay Inslee argued that presidents of both parties have underestimated the magnitude of the problem.
“We cannot work this out. The time is up. Our house is on fire,” he said. “We have to stop using coal in 10 years, and we need a president to do it or it won’t get done. Get off coal. Save this country and the planet.”
The previous night, Elizabeth Warren made her case for eliminating private insurance and replacing Obama’s Affordable Care Act with a “Medicare for All” system.
“We have tried the solution of Medicare, Medicaid, and private insurance,” she said. “And what have the private insurance companies done? They’ve sucked billions of dollars out of our health care system.”
When de Blasio echoed that critique on Thursday, Biden defended Obamacare, the former president’s signature achievement, which he has proposed to expand by adding a government-run insurance option to compete with private insurers.
“Obamacare is working,” he said. “The way to build this and get to it immediately is to build on Obamacare.”
Still, Biden on Thursday insisted he wouldn’t simply be a third-term Obama, because “times are different.”
“The world has changed,” he told reporters in Detroit. “President Trump has turned it upside down.”