Joe Biden and Barack Obama’s One-Sided Embrace
Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images
Early on the April morning when Joe Biden announced his latest presidential run, Barack Obama’s spokeswoman issued a rare statement. The message praised the former vice-president’s “knowledge, insight, and judgment,” and highlighted the pair’s “special bond.” But it stopped short of endorsing Biden’s campaign. Just a few days earlier, Biden had responded to a reporter’s question about his ideology by categorizing himself as an “Obama-Biden Democrat, man,” and when he launched his campaign, his political team — having discussed the plan with Obama’s staff to lean on this message and imagery — both posted a photo to Instagram of Biden laughing with Obama and plastered Facebook with ads featuring the former president.
Just as those ads were surfacing, however, members of Obama’s inner circle were quietly insisting to anyone who asked that the ex-president — who’s among the most popular public figures in the country, who’s not eager to turn back into a political football, and who’s also long been loath to publicly wade into intra-Democratic Party fights — was highly unlikely to pick sides in the primary at all, let alone so early in a process overflowing with candidates.
One month into Biden’s bid, the uncomfortable sense that his wholehearted embrace of his beloved former boss is not entirely reciprocated has only intensified, and is now a central unspoken psychological drama of the early Democratic primary as the former vice-president invokes “Barack” daily and the former president remains silent. No one doubts that the two men remain extremely close, but their relationship has also always been personally, politically, and philosophically tangled. (One former senior Obama aide whom I asked about it sighed and said, “The relationship is steeped in complication. They’re obviously close, and there’s trust. But it’s complicated.”) And while Obama’s insistence on neutrality is consistent with his commitment to sticking to post–White House tradition, it inevitably hits his sidekick of eight years harder than anyone else in the race — the former vice-president’s implausible, and uncorroborated, claim that he asked Obama to stay out notwithstanding.
People close to Obama often note that he only rarely weighs in on Democratic primaries at any level, being genuinely wary of overtly handpicking winners. We know, though, what it looks like for him to try and steer a race toward a given candidate from behind the scenes. In public, Obama remained mostly quiet about the buildup to the 2016 election, but late in 2014 he called Hillary Clinton for a talk that’s seldom mentioned, and little known, even among leading Democrats now. The pair had already started discussing the upcoming race that spring, but now he had a message for the former secretary of State, according to four senior Democrats briefed on the conversation at the time. You should, at this point, really think seriously about running, he told her. And you should let me know what you’re thinking, because you’re Democrats’ best bet at keeping the White House. Meanwhile, Obama’s political brain trust was following the president’s lead — that fall, his top political adviser David Plouffe visited Clinton’s D.C. home, privately briefing her on what it would take.
To those involved, this was only natural: Clinton was the obvious choice to pick up where Obama would leave off. The pair had become close allies in Washington after their 2008 primary battle — when Clinton was a much more formidable foe than Biden — and Clinton still had a huge base of support.
But Biden disagreed, and he soon found himself effectively running up against his boss’s political muscle. The vice-president was still earnestly thinking about running, and he considered himself — Obama’s No. 2 — the rightful choice, even as trusted Obama team members helped Clinton prep. For most of 2014, and then much of 2015, he wrestled with the decision, agonizing while his son Beau fought cancer, and while Clinton built a massive political operation. But by that fall, Obama and those around him grew concerned enough that they felt they had no choice but to spell out for Biden just how far behind he was — not just behind Clinton, but Bernie Sanders, too. The president asked both Plouffe and fellow senior Obama adviser David Axelrod to relay that message, according to multiple senior campaign and administration officials. When Biden ultimately backed off in October 2015, he acknowledged the impossible timing but was still stung by Obamaworld’s maneuvering. Within days of Clinton’s loss, he began telling people in private that he would have won, according to Democrats who talked to him at the time.
This time around, Biden never let there be any question he was moving toward a 2020 run — there would be no overlooking him now. “The situation has changed,” acknowledged a senior Obama administration advisor who is also close with Biden. “The dynamic has changed, [and] Biden’s personal circumstance has changed from 2016 to the present.” As he got close to declaring his candidacy, members of Biden’s inner circle talked extensively with Obama’s to discuss how the president’s image — about which he’s been notoriously careful, when it comes to other politicians invoking him — would play a role in Biden’s bid. According to the terms of the agreement they hashed out, the former vice-president would be free to invoke Obama in making emotional and nostalgic appeals and to talk about what the pair did together, so long as he didn’t imply an outright endorsement from Obama. The Obama team handed over the valuable email list from the 2012 campaign, and soon after Biden’s launch, his campaign rolled out one of its first major videos, built around Obama’s glowing description of him while awarding him the Medal of Freedom. “The president was so aggressive in shutting Biden down last time that the fact he let his voice be heard this time is really significant,” explained another former top Obama political adviser, suggesting that the very fact the former president okayed Biden employing that clip demonstrates significant coordination, and understanding, between them now.
Both the Obama and Biden teams knew this arrangement would send the message that the former president and vice-president remain close friends, which suited both sides well. “Barack Obama is an extraordinary man, I watched up close, his character, his courage, his vision. He was a president our children could, and did, look up to,” Biden told the crowd of 6,000 gathered last Saturday at his Philadelphia launch rally less than two miles from where Obama helped Clinton close out her campaign three years ago. “He was a great president.”
But Biden is also portraying himself as the natural next step for the country after the man he called his “best friend” in a 2017 speech to a Charleston NAACP dinner, and the political advantages for him are obvious — one of Biden’s biggest applauses in Philadelphia came after the first time he said “Barack Obama.” Internally, the Biden team debated using the Medal of Freedom video to kick off the entire campaign, one senior campaign adviser told me. Biden believes he has wide political latitude to make such an appeal, even without an explicit endorsement. Biden not only spent more time at Obama’s side than any other candidate, but two other Democrats who are very close to Obama — former attorney general Eric Holder and former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick — decided against running, while the former president’s other friend in the race, Colorado senator Michael Bennet, is a considerable long shot. At the same time, people close to Obama have bristled at commentary suggesting that simply because his former aides have signed on to work for other candidates, they’re trying to send a discouraging message to Biden. It is true that a wide range of senior operatives from Obama’s White House and campaigns are helping lead other efforts (Jen O’Malley Dillon, Mitch Stewart, Jeff Berman, and Paul Tewes with Beto O’Rourke; Larry Grisolano and Lis Smith with Pete Buttigieg; Jim Margolis and David Binder with Kamala Harris; Joe Rospars with Elizabeth Warren…), but no serious candidate doesn’t have such a strategist on speed dial. Plus, while Biden’s own operation is led primarily by operatives who’ve been at his side for years, old Obama hands like Pete Rouse, John Anzalone, and Anita Dunn are advising him, too.
And yet, Obama remains on the sidelines, watching as Biden articulates a vision for what comes next that breaks from his own in subtle ways that reflect their divergent roles in Washington, where Biden was often dispatched to Capitol Hill to deal with hand-to-hand politics while Obama preferred flying above the daily fray. Obama’s primary political focus in recent years has been on lifting up a new generation of leaders in his party, forcing Democrats beyond nostalgia for the Obama era. He has spoken frequently with friends about placing long-term hope in younger figures like Buttigieg, 37, and O’Rourke, 46, in addition to non-candidates like Stacey Abrams, 45, and Andrew Gillum, 39. The 76-year-old Biden, of course, is over twice as old as Buttigieg.
“Obama was the Pete or Beto candidate in 2007: He was new, he was talking about the future, he was very nontraditional. I think he, and many of the Obama faithful, are really drawn to that message that Pete, or Beto in 2018, were putting out there,” said Rufus Gifford, the finance director for Obama’s 2012 campaign who went on to serve as the ambassador to Denmark. Gifford recently hosted a Los Angeles fundraiser for Biden, but has donated the legal maximum to four candidates this year. “This election is different. We have to decide whether we really want to talk about 20 years in the future, or get to where we were three years ago, and effectively have a do-over.”
Meanwhile, on the campaign trail Biden has spoken frequently of a “restoration” to what his aides often call “normalcy.” In his launch video Biden insisted, “I believe history will look back on four years of this president and all that he embraces as an aberrant moment in time.” Obama, however, has rejected the “aberration” view of Trump, instead arguing that his successor is the product of structural trends in the GOP and that defeating him is only one part of the needed change. “Sometimes the backlash comes from people who are genuinely, if wrongly, fearful of change. More often it’s manufactured by the powerful and the privileged who want to keep us divided and keep us angry and keep us cynical because that helps them maintain the status quo and keep their power and keep their privilege,” Obama said last September. “It did not start with Donald Trump — he is a symptom, not the cause.” In Philadelphia, Biden spoke of winning over three Republican votes to pass economic-recovery legislation as evidence he would be able to work with the mainstream GOP, apart from Trump. Obama used to speak similarly of the Republican “fever” breaking; he no longer does.
Biden’s allies insist this divide is simply between Obama the thinker and Biden the pragmatist and expert legislative horse trader, rather than an ideological gulf. “Their policies are basically in the same place, but they do have some differences, and Biden was not shy about saying what his opinion was, where he agreed or disagreed,” said the top Obama administration aide who remains a Biden ally. “But when Obama made his decision, there was no one more loyal in implementing that decision.”
Biden’s view, they believe, provides worried voters the kind of long-term soothing they need, while other candidates give them a short-term high. “Mayor Pete is today’s item, but America is really fickle. Beto was hotter than fire, now Beto is gone-o. What people want now, especially after these last two and a half years, more than anything, is stability,” said John Morgan, an Orlando attorney who recently hosted a Biden fundraiser at his home. “A lot of America has post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of these last years.”
Obama, though, never put much stock in political nostalgia. Multiple senior Democrats pointed me to the original coverage of Biden’s selection as vice-president in August 2008, which noted he was picked because of his experience. “At his age, it appears unlikely that Mr. Biden would be in a position to run for president should Mr. Obama win and serve two terms,” wrote the Times in its A1 story the morning after he was named to the ticket. “Shorn of any remaining ambition to run for president of his own, he could find himself in a less complex political relationship with Mr. Obama than most vice presidents have with their presidents.”
Now, said one former high-level administration and campaign official, Biden is “one of many candidates who may put forward the policies of Barack Obama. But that’s only part of the vision Barack Obama had for the country, which was younger, more diverse, moving forward. And that’s why there’s a lot of trepidation among people, like Obama, who want to stay out of this for now.”