Former President Obama has emerged as a key player in the Democratic presidential primary race.
He hasn’t put his thumb on the scale for any one candidate in particular. But in two different speeches this month, he has made clear that presidential hopefuls would be wise to avoid moving too far to the left if they hope to win back the White House in 2020.
Some party strategists and operatives say that by throwing the weight of his legacy and influence into the simmering ideological debate between the Democratic Party’s progressive and moderate wings, the former president has the potential to reshape the dynamics of the primary race.
His latest remarks came last week as Obama met with party donors in California, where he urged Democrats to “chill out” about the primary contest and prepare to rally behind the eventual nominee. But he also appeared to warn against calling for too drastic of change.
“When you listen to the average voter — even ones who aren’t stalwart Democrats, but who are more independent or are low-information voters — they don’t feel that things are working well, but they’re also nervous about changes that might take away what little they have,” Obama said.
For some Democrats, Obama’s remarks reinforced their concerns that the primary field has lurched too far to the left and that the party may be barreling toward a loss in 2020 unless it can unite behind a moderate nominee capable of appealing to a broader swath of voters in the general election.
“I think that to some extent Obama is the canary in the coal mine,” said Dick Harpootlian, a former chair of the South Carolina Democratic Party who is supporting former Vice President Joe Biden’s presidential bid.
“He’s warning Democrats that if you buy an agenda that is not relevant or salable in November, you’re guaranteeing Donald Trump a second term.”
Obama’s remarks came as the Democratic primary field’s top tier finds itself divided along ideological lines.
Biden, who served as Obama’s vice president for eight years and is seen as the standard-bearer for the party’s moderate wing, leads in most national polls.
Likewise, another moderate, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, has seen a recent burst of momentum in Iowa and New Hampshire, the first two states to vote in the 2020 nominating contest.
Politico reported that Obama has said privately that he would speak up to stop Sanders if the democratic socialist looked likely to clinch the nomination, though a spokesperson reiterated that the former president would support and campaign for whoever is nominated.
Obama hasn’t criticized any particular candidate and has offered praise for those proposing “bolder” ideas in the primary. Allies of the former president said that he is not looking to weigh in on the party’s ideological battles, but rather that he wants to keep the field focused on defeating President Trump in 2020.
Rufus Gifford, who served as finance director for Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign, said that the former president is aware that any remarks he makes about the Democratic primary fight will be heavily scrutinized.
But Gifford said that he took Obama’s remarks more as a warning to voters “not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”
“For him to weigh in, he knows that anything he says will be analyzed by the political media and the powers that be,” Gifford said. “But he can set a tone. The tone of this primary so far hasn’t necessarily been negative but it hasn’t been that positive either.
“He’s weighing in to unify the party as much as he can; to help out without being some sort of master manipulator.”
Regardless of his intentions, Obama’s warnings in recent speeches to donors that most voters don’t want to “tear down the system and remake it” sparked a backlash among some in the Democratic Party’s progressive wing, who saw the comments as an implicit swipe at Sanders and Warren.
The remarks prompted the hashtag #TooFarLeft to trend on Twitter earlier this month, as progressives voiced outrage at the notion that their core principles — health care as a human right, for instance — were outside of political norms.
Peter Daou, a former adviser to 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton who created the #TooFarLeft hashtag, acknowledged that the effort came about in part as a response to Obama’s recent remarks. But he said that it was also intended to push back on a broader critique leveled by political elites to discredit those in the party’s left flank.
“Yes, I started the #TooFarLeft hashtag partly in response to #Obama’s comments. But that wasn’t the main reason,” Daou tweeted. “Too Far Left™ is the default attack line by the entire political/media establishment to dismiss progressives and leftists who want a better world.”
Whether Obama’s remarks have any tangible or lasting impact on the Democratic nominating contest remains to be seen. Some Democrats argued that the comments would help bolster the argument for voters to back a more moderate nominee, like Biden, Buttigieg or Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), who have all sought to occupy a sort of middle ground in the primary race.
“I think it benefits the moderates people, like Joe Biden and Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg,” Harpootlian, the Biden ally, said. “Who does it discourage? It would be Elizabeth Warren and Bernie.”
But Gifford, Obama’s former finance director, said that even the opinions of someone “as significant as Barack Obama” will not reshape the race in its entirety.
“It’s not as if he will move the needle tremendously,” Gifford said. “What he can do is help to establish a more healthy political narrative.”