When Deval Patrick decided against launching a campaign for president 11 months ago, he was still high from using his optimism-heavy political brand to campaign for candidates in the midterm elections.
Most of the candidate events were small and on the weekends. Typically, he’d deliver a brief, motivational homily, before hanging back and letting the candidates, some he hardly knew, do their thing. It gave him the chance to catch up with old friends staffing him, like Jesse Mermell, a former aide who is now running for Congress. Before too long, he started thinking that his theory that he could be done in politics because the country would dismiss his aspirational tone as “happy talk” — which he floated nervously to friends in private — was incorrect. He was perhaps still punchdrunk from his travels and the bearing he felt when, inevitably, someone asked him about the presidency, only to be startled when he answered them intimately — not as the former two-term governor, but as a kid from the South Side of Chicago.
Those personal conversations with voters around the country seem as good an explanation as any for what Patrick said about Joe Biden a year ago, as the former vice president was preparing a run for the White House and declared he was “the most qualified person in the country to be president.” With the pace of change, Patrick wondered, the range of challenges from all over the world, and an increasing number of Americans unsure about the economy and who feel that government is not responding to them, how could anyone profess to know the job of the presidency?
Casually offering that he had spoken with Barack Obama about that topic the day after Biden made the declaration, Patrick told BuzzFeed News last December, “The strange thing about being president is you really can't know the job until you have it. You can imagine it, you can project yourself in it, [or] work nearby. But until you have to make those kinds of decisions and carry that kind of weight you can't really know the job. The job is not the same from administration to administration, and I think you could probably argue it’s not the same from day to day.”
Patrick has reversed himself and is now running for president because of a culmination of forces, including what he believes is a politically fluid primary, and a clean bill of health for his wife, Diane Patrick, after a scare last year.
But Biden’s vulnerabilities in the Democratic primary are said to be a major part of Patrick’s calculation. Observing Biden’s status as a frontrunner, Patrick has grown increasingly convinced that he can put together an audience with a reasoned, aspirational approach to campaigning. Patrick has grown incredulous about whether Biden’s supposed advantages of fame, experience, and status as a frontrunner are strengths or neutral characteristics in a race he sees as winnable for a candidate offering more humility, vision, and vulnerability.
“I want voters to see me, and I want them to make sure that I see them, hear them and that I understand them,” Patrick told BuzzFeed News by phone after filing for the primary ballot in New Hampshire, insisting on the formula as one of the keys if he’s going to be successful. “Normal” candidacies in this political climate, he said, are too easily conflated with celebrity and rely on fame.
“What I want is for folks to see another member of the national community offering to lead us to higher ground together.”
As Patrick faded from public view in the last year, no candidate was as closely watched and scrutinized as Biden, who despite stumbles still leads in many polls. Antjuan Seawright, a South Carolina–based Democratic strategist, conceded that Patrick’s entry to the race was a significant development, but said he was unsure how Patrick’s candidacy gained steam when “outside of the bubble” people are content with their choices.
Rumors that Patrick was reviving his candidacy had been percolating for weeks, friends of both Patrick and Obama said, and even came as a welcome surprise to some of Obama’s closest confidants — including, according to one source, Valerie Jarrett, Obama’s former senior adviser who pushed Patrick to think about running for president for much of 2018. A person close to Obama and Patrick said Jarrett hasn't made any commitments and doesn't yet seem primed to change her plans.
Patrick and Biden differ in their approach to Obama’s record. While by all accounts Patrick and Obama speak frequently, it was less clear how often the former president speaks to Biden.
Biden has said that he didn’t ask for Obama to endorse his campaign and that he wanted to “earn this on my own.”
“I asked him not to. He said, ‘Okay,” Biden said in a recent 60 Minutes interview. “I think it’s better — I think he thinks it’s better for me [and] I have no doubt when I’m the nominee he’ll be on the campaign trail for me.”
Patrick, on the other hand, said he “would love to have” Obama’s support, but that he’s focused now on building a grassroots organization. Prefacing his statement by saying that he was speaking as a citizen, as a Democrat, and as his friend, he said he thought Obama was “an extraordinarily strong president,” but that in politics and governing that “nobody” gets everything right, suggesting Patrick could feel comfortable giving a more nuanced view of Obama’s administration.
For months, the idea of Patrick’s candidacy intrigued members of the political class who had been highly involved during the Obama years, but fell off in 2016. Akunna Cook, the former executive director of the Black Economic Alliance, a group started by business leaders in hopes of centering the economic outcomes of black Americans more squarely in the primary, said members of the group had been let down when Patrick declared that he wasn’t running. “At the moment, BEA is not endorsing in the primary and, as such, we are working with all the candidates to ensure that our agenda of economic opportunity for Black Americans is included in each of the candidates’ platform consideration,” BEA cochair Tony Coles said in an email to BuzzFeed News.
In an interview with 60 Minutes last month, the former vice president was asked bluntly: Why Joe Biden?
“Well, because I think, as I said, we need somebody on day one who knows exactly what to do and can command the world stage. No one wonders whether I know a great deal about these issues of foreign policy and domestic policy — they’re things I've done.”
Patrick’s answer to a question about what he believed the country needs on day one of the next presidency illustrated another contrast.
“I think certainly it’s a combination of self-confidence about the executive role, but also humility. Because there are decisions that have to be made in every case in every executive role where the information is incomplete. But the decision still has to be made, and it may end with an answer that someone else has that might actually be better than your own. So understanding your own true north, but a willingness to listen to others without losing your temper or your self-confidence I think is critical for the leadership the nation needs right now. And that's the kind of leadership I want to offer.”
After he left office, Patrick continued to rise to prominence as a senior statesperson in the party, offering advice and a message that Democrats needed to stand on its principles. He briefly flirted with running in 2016, but ultimately could not get ready. Patrick spoke about the worry in the 2016 that people might find Hillary Clinton’s “inevitability factor” off-putting, but he came around, telling BuzzFeed News in 2015 that he thought she’d become a sensational candidate.
It’s not exactly clear yet how Patrick will fit into the Democratic field, which already has candidates preaching optimism and unity, and candidates with different views on big policy issues like health care. Patrick told BuzzFeed News the Medicare for All debate would be more fruitful if Democrats couched it in a political message that achieving universal health care in America is an idea Democrats want to achieve and Republicans do not.
He also missed the deadline to file his candidacy in two states, Alabama and Arkansas. He is sure to get criticism from candidates in the race who have rejected the help of super PACs; Patrick laughed when asked about that, saying the same people ask how he’s going to make up for all the lost time are questioning why he’s going to “sadly” be resigned to the idea of using one.
His campaign, he said, “has to be about all the folks that you and I both know who have just checked out, and have been left out and left back and know it, and it has to be about convincing them that they have a stake — not in my campaign but in their own civic and political future, and that's what I'm going to try to do.”
And with that, Patrick sounded a sense of wonder at a candidacy that has suddenly become the ultimate challenge in a life full of them, drawing another small contrast with Biden, intentionally or not.
“I’ve got butterflies, of course,” Patrick said from New Hampshire, “because I’ve never done this before.”