LONG BEACH, Calif. - The crowded Democratic field of presidential candidates grappled with President Barack Obama's advice and legacy Saturday, the day after the former president sounded an unusual public warning about moving too far left in the primary race.
While none were willing to directly rebuff Obama, a few candidates offered implicit criticism, saying that Democrats should be careful to steadfastly back the field so that whoever wins the nomination can count on enthusiastic support from all corners of the party.
"What we're doing right now, creating these dynamics within the Democratic Party, we've got to be careful," Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey said, his voice rising as he addressed reporters in Long Beach, California, after speaking at the state's Democratic convention. "Because whoever is the nominee, we have one shot to make Donald Trump a one-term president. And so I'm not interested in delineating left or right or criticizing other folks."
"Let's stop tearing each other down, let's stop drawing artificial lines," he added. "I'm tired in this election of hearing some people say, 'Well if this person gets elected, I can't support them,' and then other people say, 'If this person gets elected, I can't support them.' Are you kidding me?"
During a televised forum sponsored by Univision, Jorge Ramos, an anchor for the Spanish-language station, asked Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont if Obama was right in saying that "the average American doesn't think we have to completely tear down the system."
Sanders chuckled briefly and responded, "Well, it depends on what you mean by tear down the system."
"The agenda that we have is an agenda supported by the vast majority of working people," he said. "When I talk about raising the minimum wage to a living wage, I'm not tearing down the system. We're fighting for justice. When I talk about health care being a human right and ending the embarrassment of America being the only major country on earth that does not guarantee health care for every man, woman and child, that's not tearing down the system. That's doing what we should have done 30 years ago."
Julián Castro, who served as the housing secretary under Obama and has embraced some of the most left-leaning policies during the primary, said that he "always takes what President Obama says very very seriously."
But, he emphatically said that he believed any of the candidates would be well-positioned to defeat Trump.
"I don't think that anybody in this campaign has articulated a vision for the future of the country that would not command a majority of voters in November of 2020," he said. "Their vision for the future of the country is much better and will be more popular than Donald Trump's."
The comments came just a day after Obama spoke at a forum in Washington, D.C., and warned against Democrats moving too far to the left, particularly on issues such as health care and immigration. While Obama did not mention any candidate by name, he took aim at the "activist wing" of the Democratic Party and "left-leaning Twitter feeds," saying they were out of touch with the average voter.
"This is still a country that is less revolutionary than it is interested in improvement," he told an audience of some of the party's wealthiest donors Friday evening.
The remarks were a rare departure for Obama. While the former president has spoken privately with nearly all the candidates, he has been careful to avoid exerting any influence on the race.
Aides said his comments were intended to calm the nerves of Democrats who were worried about the strength of their historically large field, but Obama ended up reinforcing some of their more pressing concerns.
Some establishment Democrats, elected officials and top donors have fretted that the liberal platforms of Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren would complicate their paths to the general election, arguing that they would lose voters in rural areas and in the suburban districts that helped the party win back the House last year. They are particularly worried about the politics of "Medicare for All," fearing it could transform health care, an issue that has been a political asset for Democrats, into a liability.
"We're changing something that clearly is a message that, in 2018, resonated with voters and we're making the issue about our plan rather than what the president has or has not done," former Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota said.
Among the liberal wing of the party, Obama's remarks prompted fierce backlash online and the creation of the hashtag #TooFarLeft by Peter Daou, a former adviser to Hillary Clinton.
Warren declined to address Obama's implicit criticism and instead praised the former president's efforts on health care.
"I so admire what President Obama did. He is the one who led the way on health care and got health care coverage for tens of millions of Americans when nobody thought that was possible," she said, speaking to reporters after a campaign event in Waverly, Iowa.
"Those are huge changes in this country, and they have made a difference for millions of people, and I will always be grateful," she said.
Former Gov. Deval Patrick of Massachusetts did not address Obama's comments directly but argued that he defied ideological labels.
"Don't put me in a box," he told reporters. "I don't fit. By the way, neither do most voters."
"One of the most exciting things about this moment is that the public's appetite for solutions as big as the challenges we face is greater than it's been in a long, long while," he said. "Our goals should be ambitious."
Patrick received a tepid response to his five-minute speech at the California Democratic Convention in Long Beach on Saturday, his first major address since declaring his bid for the presidency.
"I am not running, my friends, to be president of the Democrats. I am running to be president of the United States." But he quickly added: "I'm not talking about a moderate agenda. This is no time for a moderate agenda. I'm talking about being woke, while leaving room for the still waking."
Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota was among those objecting to Obama's premise. She published a tweet listing some of the priorities of the progressive left, with the rejoinder, "Count me in!"
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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