Biden rivals move to take away his Obama shield

Halfway through the second Democratic debate Wednesday night in Detroit, a former aide to Barack Obama took a subtle but clear jab on Twitter at former Vice President Joe Biden.

“Some of my best friends are Barack Obama,” tweeted Teddy Goff, who played key roles in both of Obama’s presidential campaigns.

It was a play on the joke often made to mock people who say they understand or identify with a group of people — usually a minority — because they have a friend or two among them. But it was also a rather cutting slap at Biden’s go-to tactic whenever he is criticized or questioned: to link himself with Obama.

Biden was a frequent target of criticism in the presidential primary debate from multiple candidates. Much of the time, his response included some reference to Obama.

That has been a core of Biden’s overall campaign strategy since he entered the race. It is arguably a big part of why his support among African-American voters in South Carolina, a key early primary state, has been and remains strong.

But on the debate stage, there were the first rumblings Wednesday of irritation over this strategy. More than that, Obama and his legacy came in for frequent criticism.

CNN host Don Lemon said to Biden that “in the first two years of the Obama administration, nearly 800,000 immigrants were deported, far more than during President Trump’s first two years.”

“Would the higher deportation rates resume if you were president?” Lemon asked Biden.

“Absolutely not,” Biden said, and he was then interrupted by protesters who targeted the former vice president over the number of deportations carried out during the Obama presidency.

Joe Biden, Barack Obama and Bill de Blasio. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images, AP,  Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Joe Biden, Barack Obama and Bill de Blasio (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images, AP, Scott Olson/Getty Images)

The protesters, ironically, allowed Biden to move past the issue. But a few minutes later New York Mayor Bill de Blasio pressed the issue and sought to make Biden answer Lemon’s question.

“I didn’t hear whether you tried to stop [deportations] or not, using your power, your influence in the White House. Do you think it was a good idea, or do you think it was something that needed to be stopped?” de Blasio asked Biden.

Biden talked about Obama’s record on immigration and listed his accomplishments. “To compare him to Donald Trump, I think is absolutely bizarre,” Biden said.

But de Blasio wouldn’t let it go. He asked Biden again. “I don’t hear an answer from the vice president. I’m confused. I asked the vice president point blank, ‘Did he use his power to stop those deportations?’ He went right around the question.”

Biden, finally, simply laid the responsibility for the number of deportations under the Obama administration at the former president’s feet.

“I was vice president. I am not the president. I keep my recommendation to him in private,” Biden said.

This prompted the clearest expression of frustration about Biden’s frequent tactic from Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey.

“Mr. Vice President, you can’t have it both ways. You invoke President Obama more than anybody in this campaign. You can’t do it when it’s convenient and then dodge it when it’s not,” Booker said.

On health care, Biden defended his plan by linking it with the Affordable Care Act, passed under Obama in 2010. And he referred to it as “Obamacare,” a term that Democrats in the past have avoided because it was seen as a negative. Not for Biden.

“Obamacare is working,” he said.

And when Biden was under fire for his record on civil rights, he resorted to a bank shot of claiming that if there were any real problems with it, the first black president in U.S. history wouldn’t have chosen him as a running mate.

“Everybody is talking about how terrible I am on these issues. Barack Obama knew exactly who I was. He had 10 lawyers do a background check on everything about me on civil rights and civil liberties, and he chose me, and he said it was the best decision he made. I'll take his judgment,” Biden said.

Overall, Biden did better in the second debate than he had in the first in Miami, when he came out on the losing end of a showdown over forced federal busing and civil rights with Sen. Kamala Harris. That was a rather low bar, of course.

Biden didn’t suffer any major embarrassments Wednesday, and he appeared sharper this time than last. What remains to be seen is whether he can continue to simply brush aside major critiques of his record by hiding behind his Obama connection.

“Biden does invoke Obama too much,” tweeted DeRay Mckesson, a civil rights activist.

But political analyst Stuart Rothenberg said that even if Biden’s strategy is transparently obvious, it may be effective. “Embracing Obama seems like a good idea to me if you are running for the Democratic nomination,” Rothenberg wrote.

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