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Given their desire to replace U.S. President Donald Trump, nobody expected Democrats to turn their criticism on Barack Obama.

Jeff Chiu/The Associated Press

Presidential candidates Jay Inslee, Andrew Yang, Marianne Williamson and John Delaney have scheduled events here in coming days. Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar and Kirsten Gillibrand are heading to Iowa. But everywhere they appear in the early primary and caucus states, they will be confronting a Democratic political figure none of them suspected they would be debating this summer: Barack Obama.

Mr. Obama, of course, is barred by the U.S. Constitution from a third term. But the biggest surprise of the young 2020 presidential campaign is that the record and the legacy of the 44th president − who had a 97-per-cent favourability rating last year among Democrats in a CNN poll − increasingly is becoming an issue among his fellow party members.

Suddenly, once-settled questions about Mr. Obama are unsettling the Democratic presidential field: Did he compromise too much on health care? Did he deport too many immigrants? Was the first black president too much of an insider? Was he too moderate, too much a captive of conventional politics, too reluctant to challenge the totems and taboos of establishment Washington?

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No one expected a party that, on the surface, was determined to oust U.S. President Donald Trump from the White House to turn its criticism − subtle, but unmistakable − on his Democratic predecessor. And surely, no one expected some of the criticism to come from some of his closest allies, including former cabinet member Julian Castro, the one-time secretary of Housing and Urban Development in Mr. Obama’s administration.

This new development, on full display in last week’s televised debates, is as unusual as it is unexpected.

White House aspirants customarily seek to walk hand in hand with their party presidential predecessors, as Republican vice-president Richard Nixon did with Dwight Eisenhower in 1960 and as Democratic vice-president Al Gore did with Bill Clinton in 2000.

They do this even if there may be political advantage in breaking with the departing president for being, in the Eisenhower case, too casual a chief executive at a time of Cold War tensions or, in the Clinton case, too willing to compromise the dignity of the presidency by conducting an Oval Office affair with a White House intern.

For decades, Democratic presidential candidates invoked the legacies of Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, while Republicans celebrated their ties with Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan. That practice has fallen out of fashion.

This year, several of the 2020 candidates have been willing to question whether Mr. Obama did too little (to win single-payer health care rather than settle on the private-based plan known as Obamacare) or was too late (in embracing same-sex marriage). With Joe Biden running as the natural legatee of the Obama years, criticism of the front-runner has taken the form of questioning his loyalty to Obama policies that, in the view of left-leaning contenders, didn’t go far enough.

The result is a fresh debate on the Obama years − and a fierce reaction from those, such as Mr. Biden, associated with Mr. Obama.

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“Apart from being the most popular figure in the Democratic Party, Barack Obama was the most progressive president in a generation,” said Adam Frankel, an Obama speechwriter in the White House. “And while no one, including President Obama himself, would claim he was perfect or above criticism, Democratic candidates would be well served focusing on the current occupant of the White House, not the last one.”

But focusing on the last one − or, more specifically, focusing on Mr. Obama’s record − proved to be the surest way of criticizing Mr. Biden in last week’s debate.

At one point in the Wednesday debate, Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey told Mr. Biden: “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 dodge it when it’s not.“

A day later, on the Morning Joe program, Mr. Booker acknowledged that Mr. Obama was “the statesman of our party,” but said the deportation of immigrants in the Obama years legitimately was among what he called “really substantive issues to discuss.”

Then, Mr. Biden shot back, according to Politico: ‘’I’m proud of having served with him, I’m proud of the job he did. I don’t think there’s anything he has to apologize for. And I think, you know, it kind of surprised me, the degree of the criticism.”

Even small breaks from predecessor presidents have proven awkward. When George H.W. Bush, who served two terms as Mr. Reagan’s vice-president, employed the phrase “kinder, gentler" in his 1988 Republican National Convention speech, Mr. Reagan’s wife, Nancy, asked pointedly, “Kinder and gentler than whom?” When as the 1968 Democratic presidential nominee Hubert Humphrey, who served for four years as Lyndon Johnson’s vice-president, gave a mid-campaign interview to Life magazine, he worried, “I didn’t say enough about the President, he may be mad.”

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American politicians have had little success when criticizing former presidents of their own party. When, as a 1912 presidential candidate himself after a four-year hiatus, Theodore Roosevelt tore into his one-time protégé, William Taft, for abandoning the Roosevelt record of progressivism, both he and Mr. Taft were defeated by Woodrow Wilson. When Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts was about to challenge a sitting president of his own party for the 1980 Democratic nomination, Jimmy Carter vowed, “I’ll whip his ass.”

Then, he proceeded to do just that, only to lose to Mr. Reagan that November.

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