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Is Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders the true heir to Obama's legacy?

Hillary Clinton has come up with a plan to blunt Bernie Sanders's attacks from the left: reframe them as attacks not on her policies but on President Barack Obama's record. If Sanders is going to lay claim to being the better liberal, Clinton is going to lay claim to being the better Democrat.

Clinton's strategy was in clear evidence during Sunday's Democratic debate, where on question after question she tried to drive a wedge between Sanders and liberals by recasting his proposals and principles as criticisms of Obama. And if you happened to head to in the days after the debate, you were greeted with this splash page:

But this gloss on the Democratic primary — Clinton as defender of the Obama record, Sanders as critic who wants to push further and faster — actually obscures the differences between the two candidates on different parts of the Obama legacy.

Clinton and Sanders both believe Obama left Wall Street dangerously underregulated

Take banking regulation. Clinton, in one of the night's less convincing attacks, tried to turn Sanders's criticisms of the contributions she's taken from Wall Street into a criticism of the contributions Barack Obama has taken from Wall Street.

"Where we disagree," Clinton said, "is the comments that Senator Sanders has made that don't just affect me, I can take that, but he's criticized President Obama for taking donations from Wall Street, and President Obama has led our country out of the Great Recession."

Anyone believe Clinton is really just angry on behalf of Obama here? Anyone? Bueller?

Democratic Presidential Candidates Debate In Charleston, South Carolina
Hillary Clinton, talking about how great President Obama is, probably.
Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Sniping aside, banking regulation is a place where both Clinton and Sanders clearly believe — by dint of their proposals — that Obama hasn't gone nearly far enough (perhaps because of all that money he took from Wall Street, perhaps because Dodd-Frank needed moderate Democrats and even a Republican vote to pass), and they both have laid out clear ideas for going much further.

Clinton is working with Gary Gensler, an aggressive financial reformer who was widely seen as sidelined by Obama's economic advisers, and she's released a detailed plan that builds on Dodd-Frank in important, specific ways — particularly when it comes to regulating the shadow banking sector.

Sanders, meanwhile, favors breaking up the big banks and rebuilding Glass-Steagall's wall between commercial and investment banks.

For an excellent comparison of Clinton and Sanders's financial regulation plans, read Mike Konczal's rundown. But the broad point is that on this issue, Clinton and Sanders agree that Wall Street reform is unfinished — and their argument isn't about who is best positioned to defend Obama's legacy, but whose plan for further regulating the financial sector makes more sense.

On Obamacare, Sanders wants to go further. Clinton doesn't.

Obamacare is a different story. Here, too, Clinton tried to blunt Sanders's populist appeal by framing his single-payer plan as an implicit criticism of Obamacare.

"We finally have a path to universal health care," Clinton said. "We have accomplished so much already. I do not to want see the Republicans repeal it, and I don't to want see us start over again with a contentious debate. I want us to defend and build on the Affordable Care Act and improve it."

But unlike on financial regulation, where both Clinton and Sanders want to go further than Obama did, there is a directional difference between the two candidates on Obamacare.

Clinton says the Affordable Care Act offers a path to universal health care — but it doesn't, not really. Obamacare falls well short of universal health care. Tens of millions are left uninsured because they can't afford health care or live in states that refuse to expand Medicaid. It's up to Obama's successors to build a path from Obamacare to true universal health care.

Democratic Candidate For President Bernie Sanders Holds Rally In Birmingham On MLK Jr. Day
That future? Single-payer!
Photo by Hal Yeager/Getty Images

Sanders has offered that path, at least in its very broadest strokes. I've criticized his plan for lacking basically every relevant detail necessary to evaluate it. But it is, at the least, clear about the strategy: Sanders wants to replace Obamacare — and virtually all other insurance coverage — with a single-payer plan in which the government covers every legal resident.

Clinton, by contrast, hasn't offered a path that builds from Obamacare to universal health care. Her most attention-grabbing proposal is to eliminate the Affordable Care Act's "Cadillac tax" on expensive insurance plans — an idea that eliminates one of Obamacare's central cost controls. She hasn't released proposals that significantly expand Obamacare's subsidies or build any kind of fallback for people who live in states that won't accept the Medicaid expansion. She does have ideas to lower prescription drug costs and provide tax credits to people with high out-of-pocket costs, but overall this is a plan to tweak Obamacare, not seriously build on it.

If Obama's foreign policy has a defender, it's Sanders, not Clinton

On foreign policy, meanwhile, Sanders is closer to Obama's approach than Clinton is. The central divide between Clinton and Obama in 2008 was her support for the Iraq War — a war Sanders, like Obama, opposed. Inside the Obama administration, Clinton argued for a more interventionist foreign policy. On Syria, in particular, Clinton wanted America to arm the rebels and try to topple Bashar al-Assad early, and Obama overruled her.

Behind Obama and Clinton's tactical disagreements lies a deeper fissure: Obama is focused on the limits of American power and the dangers of intervention in a way Clinton is not. To Clinton, Obama has overlearned the lessons of Iraq, and his fear of foreign entanglements has blinded him to the good American can do abroad. "Great nations need organizing principles," she told the Atlantic, "and 'Don't do stupid stuff' is not an organizing principle."

Asked to comment on Clinton's criticisms, Obama's rejoinder was acidic. "There is a difference between running for president and being president," he said.

President Barack Obama
President Obama, thinking about how to not do stupid stuff.
Photo by Pete Souza/White House via Getty Images

Sanders doesn't emphasize foreign policy much, perhaps because he's not actually that passionate about it. But his views on these issues are a lot closer to Obama's than Clinton's are. "On exactly the issue where Clinton is most to the right of the party," Matthew Yglesias wrote, "Sanders is squarely in the center and can plausibly argue that he's the true heir to the post-Iraq Democratic Party foreign policy that Obama inaugurated."

Clinton and Sanders are both heirs to Obama's political legacy

Policy isn't everything (so much as I sometimes like to pretend otherwise). Presidencies can be defined as much by their approach to politics as by their approach to policy. And on politics, Obama's legacy is a complex, fractured thing.

Obama ran for office promising a new kind of politics — a politics that transcended red and blue, that would rid Washington of the dreaded influence of "special interests," and that engaged minorities and the young.

Sanders is the heir to at least part of that project. His campaign — even more so than Obama's — is based on a rejection of the power that wealthy interests wield over American politics. His candidacy has lit young Democrats on fire, even if he continues to struggle among minority voters.

But where Obama ran for office promising a conciliatory politics, Sanders promises a confrontational politics. Obama was going to bring together people of good faith to solve the country's problems and overcome our petty divisions, Sanders is going to lead a glorious uprising of the proletariat who will crush the obstruction of Republicans and special interests alike.

Once in office, though, Obama's approach to politics changed sharply. He went from promising to change American politics by organizing the alienated to maximizing what he could get done in politics by mastering the inside game. To do that, he ended up hiring many of Clinton's former staffers — and he nominated Clinton herself to serve as secretary of state. In his second term this tendency has been even clearer, as he's sought to work around a Republican Congress by using executive power and executive agencies in creative, and some would say dangerous, ways.

Clinton is the clear heir to this part of Obama's legacy — she's the candidate you turn to for a mastery of the inside game and a deep network of staffers who know how to run the executive branch and maximize its power.

But there are legacies you choose, and then there are legacies that choose you. If either Clinton or Sanders gets elected, they're likely to inherit part of Obama's record that they would prefer to leave behind — the absolute dominance of Republicans of every branch of government, from governorships to state legislatures to Congress to the Supreme Court.

Given this reality, both Sanders and Clinton will defend the bulk of Obama's record from a Republican Congress that wants to undo more or less everything he did. But, like him, they'll also see the majority of their legislative agenda stymied — which means their specific points of agreement and divergence from Obama, particularly on domestic policy where new legislation is needed to take significant action, may not matter much in practice.