COLUMBIA, South Carolina — On the north side of town there’s a rundown gas station dedicated to President Barack Obama. It’s just like any other gas station except it’s Obama-branded, like if Obama were a gas station-convenience store chain and not a former U.S. president.
The gas price sign next to the highway features a faded Obama campaign logo and a weather-beaten portrait of Obama, circa 2008. His name and logo are emblazoned on every gas pump and over the entryway. Inside, it reeks of cigarette smoke and old food and the cashiers are behind a plexiglass barrier. Were it not for the Obama shirts and Obama-era knick-knacks for sale, you’d think you were in any old ramshackle gas station in South Carolina.
There’s something vaguely dystopian about the place, like it’s from an alternate history of America where gas stations were branded after the president but something went horribly wrong—which, for Obama-era Democrats, it kind of did.
As if all this symbolism weren’t obvious enough, right across the street from the Obama gas station former vice president Joe Biden made a last-minute campaign stop Friday afternoon at a barbershop—an excellently named place called Toliver’s Mane Event—where he met behind closed doors with a few black community leaders and then came outside to the news cameras and railed against Bernie Sanders and the National Rifle Association.
Just down the street from a Joe Biden campaign stop at a barbershop in north Columbia, SC, is a gas station devoted to Obama. pic.twitter.com/5JXaZlITds
— John Daniel Davidson (@johnddavidson) February 28, 2020
Biden is poised to do very well in the primary today. He’s surging in recent polls and his challengers, including Sanders, are ill-suited to South Carolina, largely because they don’t have much appeal to black voters, who make up the majority of the Democratic electorate here.
The locals who came to meet Biden at Toliver’s were mostly older black people, and the ones I spoke with told me they’re voting for Biden and so is almost everyone they know. Biden will almost certainly win South Carolina, and might even win by a large-enough margin to revive his dying campaign and stagger all the way to April, maybe even to the Democratic convention in July.
But even an overwhelming victory for Biden in South Carolina can’t mask what has become obvious by now: Biden is not the future of the Democratic Party. That in turn means something perhaps less obvious: neither was Obama.
‘Joe Isn’t The Answer, But He’s The Bridge to the Answer’
A Biden ad playing on YouTube states plainly what Biden’s been implying for more than a year now: “Others want to destroy Obama’s legacy. Biden wants to build on it.”
The ad is about Obamacare in particular, but the line about legacy should be understood in a broader sense. Four Februarys ago, Obama and Biden probably thought their legacy was secure, that a Hillary Clinton administration would be more or less a continuation of the Obama era. Biden likely never dreamed he would have to mount a presidential campaign based on resurrecting Obama’s legacy, or that he would face such stiff opposition to that legacy from within his own party.
Yet there he was on Friday, looking old and frail in a blue suit and wind-tossed white hair, being introduced by Michael Toliver, the barbershop owner. “If Joe Biden is good enough for Barack Obama and good enough for House Majority Whip James Clyburn, then he’s good enough to earn our vote,” said Toliver, proclaiming what Biden’s campaign would probably rather leave implied, that Biden is popular among black voters largely because he served under Obama.
Some of those gathered outside the barbershop on Friday said that’s exactly why they trust Biden—that, and Clyburn’s endorsement. Ronald Blackwell, owner of the food truck R.B. Top Chef, which was parked outside Toliver’s, told me it was a “no brainer” for him to support Biden once Clyburn endorsed him. “I trust Clyburn. He’s helped me out in the past, and he comes to my church sometimes,” he said.
Blackwell and Toliver and the others are not the least bit interested in Bernie Sanders’s revolution, even if a growing—and much younger—swath of the Democratic Party clearly is. They’re mystified by it, just as they’re mystified that Trump is president. They want things to go back to the way they were before, and Biden’s call for a return to normalcy, to the Obama era, is a call they’re ready to answer without hesitation.
One comment did stand out, though. Damon Young, 46, owns the barbershop right next to Toliver’s, where he apprenticed for many years before opening his own place. I asked Young why he supports Biden, and he paused before saying, “Joe isn’t the answer, but he’s the bridge to the answer. Especially if he can get some good younger people around him.”
It was a cautious expression of hope. Maybe we can get Joe back in there, maybe he’ll be the bridge back to before all this craziness. Maybe he can hand things off to younger folks who don’t want this socialist revolution.
Maybe. It called to mind what Blackwell, the food truck owner, told me when I asked him about the Obama gas station. He said a few years back it was known for having lucky lottery tickets. The numbers kept hitting there, so people started driving across town to play the lotto at Obama station.
“It was pretty good for a while,” he said, “but then it stopped and some places over by the freeway started hitting, so people went there instead.”