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Barack Obama was Joe Biden’s guardian angel at the Democratic debate

“Barack Obama knew exactly who I was”: Joe Biden defends his past record by invoking Obama.

Former Vice President Joe Biden is introduced before the second of two Democratic presidential primary debates on July 31, 2019.
Former Vice President Joe Biden is introduced before the second of two Democratic presidential primary debates on July 31, 2019.
Paul Sancya/AP

Former Vice President Joe Biden really wants Barack Obama to be his guardian angel.

Biden’s challengers on the Democratic debate stage Wednesday took every opportunity to take a swipe at the former vice president, who has been consistently leading the polls since announcing his run. And every time the going got tough, Biden invoked his former running mate.

“I find it fascinating, everybody is talking about how terrible I am on these issues,” Biden said at the second Democratic debate, coming under attack for his record on criminal justice record. “Barack Obama knew exactly who I was. He had 10 lawyers do a background check and everything about me on civil rights, and he chose me and said it was the best decision he ever made.”

This has been Biden’s strategy from the start. He doesn’t have Obama’s official endorsement, but he’s running as though he does. And he has nearly a decade of a media bromance with Obama to pull from.

But Democrats onstage, specifically Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Kamala Harris (D-CA), had no interest in letting Biden claim Obama’s mantle.

Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks while Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) listen during the Democratic Presidential Debate on July 31, 2019.
Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks while Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) listen during the Democratic Presidential Debate on July 31, 2019.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

“You invoke President Obama more than anybody in this campaign,” Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) said, when talk turned to immigration and Biden’s position on the record-high deportations under the Obama administration. “You can’t do it when it’s convenient and dodge it when it’s not.”

Of course, everyone wants the Obama bump; Obama remains an extremely popular president, whose favorability rating, as is often true with former presidents, has improved substantially since leaving office. Julián Castro is running on his record in Obama’s cabinet. And for Biden it’s crucial: He’s never had success on a national ticket without Obama by his side. His time in the administration is what has given him the highest name recognition in the field and is a factor in his strong poll numbers.

But he’s not the only Democrat who wants to claim Obama’s limelight, and he has decades of public service before his time in the White House to scrutinize.

Joe Biden was scrutinized for his record the whole night

From his thoughts on health care and immigration to his record on criminal justice reform and comments on race relations, to his stance on trade and record on the Hyde Amendment, Biden was asked over and over again by the moderators — but more notably by the other candidates — to defend positions he’s held in the past. The strategy was clear: Make Biden look out of touch.

Biden often turned to Obama as a shield.

“I think the president of the United States, Barack Obama, went out of his way to try to change the system and he got pushed back significantly,” Biden said of Obama’s record on immigration.

When talk turned to the criminal justice system and race relations, Biden’s answer was simply, Obama thought I was a good person and so should Americans.

But the 76-year-old statesman didn’t assuage the concerns of his competitors. Harris brought the conversation back to what became a viral moment for the California senator in the first debate against Biden: his comments about working with southern Democratic segregationists. It was a moment that helped her gain stock in the primary and see a bump in the polls.

“Had those segregationists had their way, I would not be a member of the United States Senate, Cory Booker would not be a member of the United States Senate and President Obama would not have been in a position to nominate him to the place he holds,” Harris said in reference to Biden.

There are six months until Americans participate in the Democratic primary. Biden has coasted, holding roughly a third of the electorate in the polls. It’s clear that Obama has played a role in that. The other Democrats in the field have taken notice — and they want a piece.