In some of the tensest moments of the 2020 debates, a viewer might have concluded that Democrats were poised for a large-scale clash over the legacy of President Barack Obama.
There have been heated arguments about whether to stick with Mr. Obama’s architecture for health care policy or to pursue a single-payer system, and flashes of direct criticism over his record on immigration. In televised debates, Democratic rivals like Julián Castro have pressed his former vice president, Joseph R. Biden Jr., to repudiate the large-scale deportations carried out under Mr. Obama’s watch.
There have also been defiant professions of loyalty, delivered as though Mr. Obama were under siege from fellow Democrats. Mr. Biden, the Democratic front-runner, has made these moments a hallmark of his candidacy: “I stand with Barack Obama all eight years, good, bad, indifferent,” he said at the last debate.
Yet among the vast majority of Democratic voters, there is little appetite for a brawl over the merits of Mr. Obama’s record. And while Mr. Obama’s consensus-seeking liberalism appeals to many Democratic voters, few appear to be thinking about the 2020 primary as a forum for determining which candidate would follow Mr. Obama’s exact policy blueprint.
Interviews with Democratic voters and party leaders found near-unanimous admiration for the former president and his policies, a sense of nostalgia for what they recall as his dignified conduct — and, at the same time, a hunger for something new.
Mr. Obama remains immensely popular among Democrats: In a poll published Tuesday by NBC News and The Wall Street Journal, nine in 10 Democrats said they viewed him in positive terms. More than three quarters said they believed Mr. Obama “did as much as was possible at the time in addressing the issues facing the country.”
Mr. Obama has kept a low profile in the presidential race, meeting privately with many of the Democratic candidates but telling associates that he does not see it as his place to direct the party’s future. He has expressed interest, at different times, in rising stars like former Representative Beto O’Rourke of Texas and Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind. Mr. Obama had issued a warm statement about Mr. Biden’s entry into the primary but had declined to endorse him or anyone else.
Some of the aura around Mr. Obama surrounds Mr. Biden, too, granting him much of the party’s good will.
“He was with President Obama,” said Tajshiek Nehemiah, 31, who watched Mr. Biden deliver a speech in Birmingham, Ala., last Sunday. “I like the way he spoke as vice president, what he stood for, what he believes.”
But Democrats supporting other candidates have no difficulty reconciling that preference with their affection for Mr. Obama. And they do not necessarily connect the social problems the left is most focused on, like economic inequality and health care costs, to the agenda Mr. Obama pursued on those issues.
“I love Obama,” Maureen Conboy, a lawyer in New York, said Monday after watching Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts give a speech in Washington Square Park. “He made mistakes but he’s honest, he really cared — you could just tell he’s a good person.”
Ms. Conboy also said that was the past.
“I think re-litigating what happened, making this about Obama, the Obama administration, is the wrong thing,” she said, adding, “We’ve got to look forward, and if it’s Biden, we’re going to do nothing but looking back.”
Patrick Dillon, Mr. Obama’s former deputy political director in the White House, said many Democrats shared that mind-set. He said candidates had to offer new ideas, but saw little evidence that skepticism of Mr. Obama was growing.
“I think every candidate has to talk about how they’re going to build forward from the Obama legacy,” said Mr. Dillon, who is married to Mr. O’Rourke’s campaign manager but is not working for the campaign. “The notion of ‘building on’ seems to have won the conversation, versus the notion of aggressively reassessing or tearing down.”
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That any Democrat might consider running as an Obama clone underscores his unusual political stature. No recent former president has enjoyed a comparable glow immediately after leaving office. Even relatively popular presidents were seen as more tainted: for Ronald Reagan, there was Iran-Contra; for Bill Clinton, the lurid ripples of impeachment.
Mr. Obama is different, especially for Democrats. If elements of his political ethos have gone out of vogue — his peacemaking with Wall Street, for instance, or his championing of free-trade agreements — the Democratic candidates who have departed from his approach have shown no desire to make that split explicit.
The two most prominent liberals in the race, Ms. Warren and Mr. Sanders, have couched their calls for sweeping policy change within praise for Mr. Obama, all but erasing disagreements they had with him in the past. In demanding a single-payer health care system, they have praised the Affordable Care Act and called “Medicare for All” a logical next step. Whether Mr. Biden can successfully brand that stance as a rejection of Mr. Obama, as he attempted to do at the last debate, remains to be seen.
For now, the liberals’ approach has worked with some Democrats in the early-voting states. Zach Simonson, a Democratic county chairman in Wapello County, Iowa, said if Democrats took the view that Mr. Obama “made zero mistakes, or that he didn’t even leave anything unfinished, then we have nothing to run on but undoing the Trump presidency.”
“We can’t be the party of ‘Make America 2016 Again,’” Mr. Simonson said. “Being for hope and change and progress is the best way to carry on the Obama legacy.”
JoAnn Hardy, a party leader in Iowa’s Cerro Gordo County, said she saw Mr. Biden as “best positioned to carry on Obama’s legacy” because of their close relationship. But she said she believed all the candidates had “respect for Obama and his policies.”
“I think some of those proposing policies different from Obama are just moving the policies another step toward realization.,” Ms. Hardy, who is neutral in the race, said.
Blunter criticism of Mr. Obama has been left to more desperate candidates, like Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York City, who have sought traction by courting activists with intense but narrow grievances about Obama-era policies, particularly on immigration, trade and national security.
John Anzalone, a pollster for Mr. Biden who worked for Mr. Obama, said there was no strong Democratic constituency for such criticism. According to his research, Mr. Anzalone said, primary voters were pining not just for Mr. Obama as a person but for his steady, pragmatic approach, something he suggested Mr. Biden was well positioned to provide.
“They wish they could get back to the normalcy of someone like Barack Obama,” Mr. Anzalone said.
Mr. Obama’s enduring popularity owes much to his status as the first black president of the United States. And Mr. Biden’s standing in the race flows from his role as Mr. Obama’s steadfast defender, with his lead built on strong support from African-Americans.
“He had no problem with defending the president when asked to do so,” said Lashunda Scales, an Alabama Democrat who is president pro tempore of the Jefferson County Commission. She wasn’t making an endorsement, she said, but added, “that, to me, said a lot about his character.”
But African-American voters are far from uniform in preferring Mr. Biden, or in seeing the primaries as a referendum on Mr. Obama.
Elizabeth Bowens, a retired hospitality worker in Myrtle Beach, S.C., said that she disliked the contentious tone of the Democratic race and that she longed for the Obama years.“Him and Michelle, that’s a beautiful couple,” she said.
But Ms. Bowens did not seem to be leaning toward Mr. Biden.
“It’s time for a woman,” she said.
To Mr. Obama’s sharpest critics on the left — chiefly activists and policy experts concerned with issues like financial regulation, drone warfare, immigration and criminal justice — his Teflon reputation can be frustrating.
Matt Stoller, a fellow at the liberal Open Markets Institute who is a scathing critic of Mr. Obama’s economic record, said he saw Democrats as caught between their personal reverence for Mr. Obama and the reality that the country faces a “existential crises” — on matters like climate change and economic inequality — that Mr. Obama did not resolve.
At some point, Mr. Stoller said, Democrats might face a stark choice between Mr. Obama’s center-left policy framework and the agendas of liberal candidates they now favor. But Mr. Stoller acknowledged no such test had yet arrived.
“I’m still waiting for that moment when Democrats are going to have to make that choice,” he said.
There is no guarantee that it will ever arrive. And the choice Democratic primary voters see before them now has less to do with Mr. Obama’s policies than with the immediate challenge of ousting President Trump.
Susan Chase, a retiree in Southport, N.C., said candidates who attacked Mr. Obama would not get her vote, and she criticized Senator Kamala Harris for attacking Mr. Biden in the first debate.
But that does not mean she will vote for Mr. Biden.
“Part of me says it’s time for something really new and different,” Ms. Chase said, “but then the other part says we’ve got to have somebody who can beat Trump.”
Jonathan Martin contributed from Galivants Ferry, S.C., Katie Glueck from Birmingham and Reid J. Epstein from Washington.