Democratic presidential hopefuls have been reluctant to attack Joseph R. Biden over his eight years with President Barack Obama, but voters in early primary states say it’s an opportunity for anyone brave enough to challenge the Obama orthodoxy.
While the Democratic base still harbors enormous goodwill toward the country’s first black president, some early state voters say Mr. Obama failed to deliver on many of his promises, leaving the political battleground virtually unchanged a decade after his historic ascent to the White House.
“We saw what happened with Obama. There’s no change yet,” said Democratic voter Derryl Mitchell II, 27, who owns a media marketing firm in Charleston, South Carolina. “We had a chance in 2008 and not much came from it. We’re still here — same issues.”
Mr. Biden, who is running on a promise of restoring Obama-era values and stability to the country, holds a commanding lead in the crowded primary race. He has kept his political attacks aimed at President Trump, as his nearly two dozen rivals mostly hold their fire on the former vice president.
That is expected to change at the first Democratic presidential primary debate next week in Miami, where Mr. Biden will be a prime target.
The trick will be to hit the Obama administration record without nicking Mr. Obama.
“I actually think there is probably a good bit of room to go after Obama policies without mentioning Obama by name,” said Brent Nelsen, a political science professor at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina. “There is still an afterglow from the Obama presidency and I would say most candidates aren’t going to go out and criticize Barack Obama personally or the administration directly, but you already hear them taking on things like health care.”
Indeed, liberal activists have argued that Mr. Obama’s signature achievement, the Affordable Care Act, didn’t go far enough and that his administration’s record on the deportation of immigrants was abysmal.
Mr. Biden also is vulnerable to criticism for suddenly championing policies that didn’t get a big push by the Obama White House, such as a $15 minimum wage or free tuition at community colleges.
Republican strategist and pollster John Couvillon said Mr. Biden is vulnerable on the Obama front and he will get hit there sooner or later.
Speaking at a fundraiser in New York on Tuesday, Mr. Biden said his early lead in the polls means “there’s a target on my back.”
Some White House wannabes have tiptoed around criticism of the Obama legacy.
Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke told MSNBC last week that Mr. Biden represents a return to the past.
“You cannot go back to the end of the Obama administration and think that that’s good enough,” he said. “We cannot return to the past.”
But when a PBS interviewer pressed him to explain the comment, Mr. O’Rourke tried to thread the needle, praising Mr. Obama as the “greatest president of my lifetime” while reiterating his argument that it is time for a new generation of leadership.
“I think some of the appeal of the vice president’s candidacy is a return to an earlier era,” he said. “And while we are grateful for that era, and certainly for the service of President Obama, I think we need to be focused on the future, because, even before Donald Trump, we had challenges in this country.”
The Democratic hopefuls are understandably skittish about criticizing Mr. Obama. Just look at what happened to Sen. Bernard Sanders of Vermont, whose far-left campaign has made him a top 2020 Democratic contender.
Last year, on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Mr. Sanders dared to question the accomplishments of Mr. Obama.
“The business model, if you like, of the Democratic Party for the last 15 years or so has been a failure,” he said at an event in Jackson, Mississippi. “People sometimes don’t see that because there was a charismatic individual named Barack Obama. He was obviously an extraordinary candidate, brilliant guy. But beyond that reality, over the last 10 years, Democrats have lost about 1,000 seats in state legislatures all across this country.”
The retribution by Democratic Party faithful was fast and furious. Mr. Sanders was even called “deplorable.”
Steffen Schmidt, a political science professor at Iowa State University, said going after the Obama years was too risky.
He suggested Mr. Biden’s rivals focus on what they consider blemishes from the three-plus decades he spent representing Delaware in the Senate.
“Obama went out of two terms with high approval especially among Democrats, so the candidates will need to stick with age, support for tough police action against gangs, his original position on abortion, and other issues Democrats hold against him,” he said.
During a campaign swing through Iowa last week, Mr. Biden said he was proud to have served as Mr. Obama’s right-hand man. He touted the role the administration played in passing the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in response to the 2008 recession, which he credited with stopping the country from slipping into an economic depression.
“As a point of personal privilege, I want to say something we don’t say often enough to our party and to our nation: Barack Obama was a president of extraordinary character and decency,” he said in Davenport, eliciting his biggest applause of the evening.
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