Heading into the Thursday night’s Democratic presidential debate in Milwaukee there were many questions about the future of US Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont and former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton. But during the nearly two-hour debate, the bigger question loomed: What about the legacy of President Obama.
Obama’s name was mentioned 33 times during Thursday night’s debate, the first since Sanders trounced Clinton in the New Hampshire primary.
The debate could have been about Clinton attacking Sanders strongly. It could have been about Sanders assuming the mantle as an equal. Instead of was about who was the bigger ally to Obama.
Context matters here. There is a reason why Obama is emerging as a central figure in the Democratic presidential race now rather than before in Iowa and New Hampshire. With the campaign shifting to more racially diverse states, the legacy of the first African-American president matters. This is especially true in South Carolina, where 55 percent of the Democratic primary vote in 2008 was black.
At first, the pair debated Obama’s signature domestic policy achievement: the Affordable Care Act. Clinton accused Sanders of advocating a plan to dismantle it in favor of expanding Medicare to everyone. Sanders said he simply wanted to build on the legacy.
At the outset of the race, there was speculation about how Clinton would try to distance herself from the Obama Administration. This debate proved how wrong that speculation was. Clinton endorsed his police commission meant to encourage sentencing reform, and she challenged a moderator’s premise that race relations had not improved under Obama. She also used Obama to defend herself on her super PAC taking Wall Street money by saying Obama did the same thing but still cracked down on the financial sector. She also noted that Obama picked her to be secretary of state.
Sanders also agreed with many actions Obama had made, including on immigration.
For the most part it was a subdued, policy-driven debate. But when things got personal and heated, the subject was generally the president.
Clinton pointed out comments where Sanders had been critical of Obama.
“Senator Sanders said that President Obama failed the presidential leadership test. And this is not the first time that he has criticized President Obama. In the past he has called him weak. He has called him a disappointment,” Clinton said.
Sanders called that a “low blow.”
“President Obama and I are friends. As you know, he came to Vermont to campaign for me when he was a senator. I have worked for his re-election, his first election and his re-election,” Sanders said. “Well, one of us ran against Barack Obama. I was not that candidate.”
Obama, himself, has largely stayed out of the Democratic contest, though shortly before the Iowa caucuses he told Politico that Sanders didn’t remind him of himself running against Clinton before. Some Sanders supporters were taken aback by that, and days later he and Sanders met in the White House.James Pindell can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell or subscribe to his daily e-mail update on the 2016 campaign at www.bostonglobe.com/groundgame.