WASHINGTON — The two rounds of Democratic presidential debates, rather than bringing clarity to the primary or culling the field of 24 candidates, have instead laid bare the fragility of former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. as a front-runner and showcased the divisions over ideology and identity in a party that appears united only in its desire to defeat President Trump.
Having failed so far to dominate the debates, Mr. Biden tried on Thursday to quell liberal resistance to his candidacy by other means: He charged, in Detroit, that certain attacks from the left on his record and his policies amounted to attacks on former President Barack Obama and his legacy.
After nearly 10 hours of nationally televised and often contentious candidate forums, the Democratic hopefuls and their voters are plainly torn over how best to take on Mr. Trump and how aggressive a program they should embrace, particularly on health care and immigration.
And far from coalescing around a possible nominee, Democrats are also sharply divided over what kind of standard-bearer would best bridge the larger generational, gender and racial differences shaping the party in the 2020 race.
“I don’t think anybody is currently perceived as both appealing and low-risk,” said Diane Feldman, a veteran Democratic pollster who said she saw Mr. Biden as having largely given up his advantage on the risk front. “He is still more moderate, he is still of a different generation and those things carry some advantages for him. But he may not still have the ‘low-risk choice’ advantage.”
Mr. Biden demonstrated his vulnerabilities in the two debates, repeatedly offering halting answers, though he performed better in Wednesday’s forum than in the first one in June. But on the stage on Wednesday and at an event on Thursday in Detroit, he also adopted a new strategy: defending Mr. Obama from direct and implicit criticism from some of the other Democratic candidates, particularly Bill de Blasio, the mayor of New York, and Julián Castro, a former housing secretary.
Casting his liberal critics as generally hostile to the administration he served in, Mr. Biden said it was “bizarre” that some candidates were questioning the Obama administration’s record on immigration and other issues, a defensive tactic to remind primary voters of his connection to a respected former president.
The rising tension over Mr. Obama’s legacy, most notably the Affordable Care Act, is a new crack in the party’s orthodoxy, as an ascendant progressive wing that favors transformative change raises questions about the incremental policies of the former president. After a few candidates used the Detroit debate to demand that Mr. Biden account for Mr. Obama’s record on issues such as deportations and free trade, Mr. Biden was joined by some of the former president’s advisers, who chastised the critics for committing political malpractice.
“The more time we spend attacking President Obama and his record and the less time we spend on what Donald Trump is doing to this country only serves to help one person — Donald Trump,” said Stephanie Cutter, a former top Obama campaign aide. “Everybody on that stage needs to keep that in mind.”
CNN reporter Rebecca Buck on Friday said former president Barack Obama is “expressing exasperation” over the Democratic Party’s movement to the left.
CNN’s Newsroom co-host Jim Sciutto mentioned Obama wasn’t pleased by criticism from Democratic presidential candidates and asked Buck what she was learning behind the scenes.
“As you know, Obama has been trying to stay out of this primary as much as possible, keeping quiet, and not making any endorsements even with his former vice president Joe Biden in the race,” Buck said. “But privately Obama, our CNN colleagues are reporting, is expressing exasperation at how far left the party is moving on some policy issues and of course breaking with some of the things he did when he was president.”
“Primaries are all about the legacy of the last president where the party is moving, and it’s no secret that the Democratic Party right now has been moving far to the left policy-wise relative to the Obama administration,” Buck continued. “And it is for many of these candidates a balancing act because Joe Biden of course is essentially a third term of President Obama.”
CNN on Thursday reported Obama allies were not happy about the Democratic presidential candidates attacking Obama’s record on health care and immigration. Former Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel, who served as the first White House chief of staff in the Obama administration, railed against the candidates.
Democratic lawmakers were left shaken and worried by Wednesday night’s bruising presidential debate, which left some fearing the fight will hurt the party and result in a damaged nominee.
Senate Democrats are frustrated that candidates are spending too much time and effort attacking each other for relatively small policy differences, while not focusing their ire on President Trump.
They worry the intraparty food fight is overshadowing what they see as the main goal: Drawing a clear contrast between the Democratic candidates and Trump on health care and other key issues.
“I’m of the view that we have always been a party of ideas,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.). “I think everybody should sort of consider that.”
She said there is “concern” within the caucus of the increasingly vicious attacks, particularly against the front-runner, former Vice President Joe Biden.
“People take sides and then they become hypersensitive and that just makes divisions all over the party and we don’t want that,” she said. “I want every one of our candidates to do well.”
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) blamed the debate moderators for much of the negativity.