So far during the 2020 presidential race, there’s been quite a bit of discussion about former President Barack Obama’s legacy.

That’s not so surprising in and of itself – Obama is one of the most popular Democratic presidents in recent decades. While Bill Clinton was fairly successful in office, winning re-election and presiding over a growing economy and a budget surplus, his personal failings have always made him a controversial figure. In recent years, his political legacy has taken a beating as well, as Democrats have largely retreated from his efforts to move the party more toward the center. Indeed, even his wife abandoned many of his policies during her own presidential run, yet she still faced a vigorous challenge from the left.

Jimmy Carter has made a name for himself more as a former president than for his accomplishments in office, but Obama remains widely popular among both the electorate as a whole and his own party only a few years out office. That’s an impressive accomplishment for any president.

So why, then, has his legacy proven so controversial in the early goings of the 2020 campaign?

Partly it’s just pure politics: His vice president, Joe Biden, is the front-runner in a crowded field, and most of the other contenders are focusing their attention on him. They’ve been criticizing him regularly, and that’s to be expected in any campaign. There’s plenty of room to go after Biden without criticizing Obama. He has his own, lengthy career in politics to dissect and analyze. That career offers lots of material to target Biden directly, as does his personality: While many find him charming, he’s gotten in trouble for being overly familiar with people in the past, and he has a tendency toward verbal miscues.

His opponents haven’t just focused on him, however – they’ve criticized Obama and his administration as well. They’ve pointed out Obama’s failure to get anything done legislatively on a variety of issues, like guns, immigration and climate change. They’ve also criticized him for not going further in those areas with executive action, with several promising to take much bolder steps in the Oval Office. This criticism isn’t just about Biden being the front-runner, but about a broad dissatisfaction with Obama among much of the liberal base. Many Democrats seem to feel that he wasn’t aggressive enough in office, and presidential candidates are responding to that by criticizing him for it from the left, rather than embracing his legacy.

The question here in Maine may be whether that history repeats itself for Republicans as they try to retake the Blaine House in 2022. Last year, all of the gubernatorial candidates tried to lay claim to Paul LePage’s mantle to varying degrees, attempting to take credit for his accomplishments and promising to build on his success. Although he was controversial among the general public, LePage always maintain strong support among Republicans as a whole, so it makes sense that his would-be successors would adopt that strategy. Moreover, after eight years in office for any chief executive, the next campaign is almost always all about their legacy – for their party, the positive parts, and for the opposition the negative.

Things will be quite different three years from now: The race will be all about Janet Mills, not LePage – unless he decides to run again himself. If he doesn’t, all Republican candidates will have to decide how much to embrace his legacy and how much to distance themselves from it. It seems very likely that at least one candidate – perhaps several – will again seek to claim LePage’s mantle. One of them might well attempt to model themselves after LePage in more than just policy, imitating his bombastic style in an attempt to impress the Republican base. It might be interesting to see whether that would be effective against Mills, since none of the candidates really took that approach last time.

Apart from seeking to follow in LePage’s footsteps, Republicans have other options in 2022. Some might take the approach that Democrats are now with Obama, arguing that the Republicans should have gotten more done when they had the majority and criticizing LePage from the right.

That argument may well have currency in the conservative grassroots, just as some liberals are grumbling now that more should have been done more this session. Or they could try to take the party in a more centrist direction. Regardless, the presidential race is likely to impact the approach that both parties take in Maine in 2022 and beyond.

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]

Twitter: jimfossel

 


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