Debate Backlash: Many Democrats Say Criticizing Obama's Legacy Isn't A Good Idea

"He did an extraordinary job, and he should be given that recognition by those" running for president, Sen. Dick Durbin said.

Following a contentious debate among Democratic White House contenders Wednesday, a number of party leaders aren’t thrilled that some of the candidates focused on attacking former President Barack Obama’s legacy as a way to challenge Joe Biden.

In one of the debate’s hottest exchanges, Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey called out the former vice president ― the frontrunner in the Democratic nomination race ― for repeatedly using Obama’s name to shield himself from criticism directed his way on issues like criminal justice and immigration.

“Mr. vice president, you can’t have it both ways,” Booker said, referring to Biden’s ― and Obama’s ― record on immigration, which saw a record number of undocumented immigrants deported during their eight-year administration. “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.”

Biden defended himself by noting Obama’s decision to select him as his running mate, saying, “Barack Obama knew exactly who I was.”

Also taking Biden to task on the deportation figures was Julián Castro ― a particularly striking moment, since the Texan served in Obama’s administration as secretary of housing and urban development.

Biden spotlighted that, responding to Castro, “The secretary, we sat together in many meetings. I never heard him talk about any of this when he was the secretary.

Castro retorted: “It looks like one of us has learned from the lessons of the past and one of us hasn’t.”

Polls show Obama remains a popular figure among all voters, with approval ratings easily outstripping those for President Donald Trump. And among Democrats, Obama remains by far the most admired politician.

Booker, in comments to CNN on Thursday, insisted it wasn’t a negative to reconsider part of the record of the Obama administration as part of the process of choosing the next Democratic presidential nominee.

Democrats are “having an honest conversation about an administration that was incredible,” Booker said. “And I’m sure (if) Barack Obama was sitting here ... He will tell you, ‘I made some mistakes.’”

But several of Booker’s Democratic Senate colleagues expressed concern about the tactic, arguing it would needlessly expose divisions in the party and take the focus off of Trump and his administration.

“I think attacking President Obama is bad policy and bad politics,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut said Thursday. Of Biden’s tenure as vice president, Blumenthal added: “He owns it, for better or worse. But he should be proud of it.”

Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois also suggested the Democratic race should be marked by a more hands-off approach toward Obama.

“You can disagree with him, and I have, but the bottom line is ... he did an extraordinary job, and he should be given that recognition by those that are running for the presidency.”

Others who watched the debate expressed similar sentiments, including longtime Washington-based political analyst Stuart Rothenberg:

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York urged his party’s White House contenders to train their sights firmly on Trump.

“I think President Obama is a very popular figure in America to this day because he did a very good job. Did he accomplish everything? No,” Schumer told reporters on Thursday, “You compare the Obama administration to this administration ― it’s night and day.”

Veteran Republican political consultant John Weaver ― a fierce Trump critic ―was blunter:

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