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Democratic Presidential Candidates Build On Best Parts Of Obama's Term


In the 2016 race for president, one man who's not on any ballot probably gets mentioned more than anyone who will be, and that's President Barack Obama - negatively, of course, by Republicans. But also, for a president whose poll numbers have been underwater, Democratic candidates are hugging him awfully tight. NPR's Tamara Keith explains why.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: So it's not at all surprising that the Republican candidates for president are running against President Obama. Here they are at last week's debate on the Fox Business Network.


MARCO RUBIO: Barack Obama does not believe that America is a great global power.

CHRIS CHRISTIE: This guy is a petulant child.

JEB BUSH: The first impulse of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton is to take rights away from law-abiding citizens.

TED CRUZ: The millionaires and billionaires are doing great under Obama.

KEITH: But it was a very different story at the NBC Democratic debate over the weekend.


HILLARY CLINTON: I was very pleased to be part of what the president put into action when he took office.

MARTIN O'MALLEY: We need to come together as a people and build on the good things that President Obama has done.

BERNIE SANDERS: I know President Obama's been getting a lot of criticism on this. I think he is doing the right thing.

KEITH: In recent weeks, with the race tightening, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been pitching herself as the best person to carry forward President Obama's legacy. And she hit that theme again and again in the debate, even going after her chief opponent, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, for not supporting Obama enough.


CLINTON: President Obama has led our country out of the great recession. Sen. Sanders called him weak, disappointing. He even, in 2011, publicly sought someone to run in a primary against President Obama.

KEITH: But Sanders wasn't about to let that stand, moments later playing up his ties to the president.


SANDERS: 2008 - I did my best to see that he was elected. And in 2012, I worked as hard as I could to see that he was re-elected. He and I are friends. We've worked together on many issues. We have some differences of opinion.

KEITH: Embracing the current president isn't an obvious campaign strategy. Democrats running for Senate in 2014 ran away from - and fast. But look under the hood of Obama's middling national approval rating, and you find the answer to why Clinton and Sanders are heaping on the praise. In the latest Gallup survey, among Democrats, his approval rating is 84 percent. It's similarly high among African-American voters and over 60 percent for Latinos. Margie Omero is a Democratic pollster at Purple Strategies and co-host of a podcast called "The Pollsters."

MARGIE OMERO: If you're talking to a primary audience, that's what they're going to want to hear. I mean, we call it red meat. The candidates in a democratic primary debate are talking about the Democratic president who is popular with Democratic primary voters.

KEITH: And it's no accident that this love-fest broke out at a debate in South Carolina, a state where African-American voters dominate the Democratic primary and where they helped cement President Obama's victory eight years ago. Corey Ealons is senior vice president at VOX Global and a former communications adviser to President Obama.

COREY EALONS: I think this is very much a short-term play as well as a long-term play in courting African-American voters this cycle.

KEITH: Whoever becomes the Democratic nominee, Ealons says that person is going to have to win over and motivate the so-called Obama coalition - African-Americans, Latinos, young people - people who President Obama brought out to the polls in record numbers and who, eight years later, still like the president.

EALONS: You're not going to be able to run away from that presidency, so the best thing to do is to take the best pieces that you have, build on those, and begin to lay down what you stand for and who you would fight for.

KEITH: As for the president, his spokesman said yesterday, at this point, Obama is not prepared to offer up an endorsement. Tamara Keith, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.
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