This Joe Biden campaign for president already is different from his previous two.
As he entered the 2020 race Thursday, most polls showed him leading a large Democratic field of at least 20 other candidates — a dynamic that’s attributable in no small part to his two terms as Barack Obama’s vice president. Obama remains popular among Democrats and, in the minds of Biden allies, helps connect Biden to black voters who might otherwise be skeptical of him.
So it’s little surprise that Biden recently pronounced himself an “Obama–Biden Democrat.” There could be a few problems with that kind of branding though. For starters, Obama himself has no plans to endorse his old running mate or officially put his imprimatur on the campaign.
Biden’s response to that curiosity Thursday was that he had asked Obama not to endorse him.
“I asked President Obama not to endorse," Biden told a group of reporters waiting for him at the Amtrak station named after him in Wilmington, Delaware. He added that "whoever wins this nomination should win it on their own merits."
The former president is “unlikely to put his thumb on the scale in the primary,” a person familiar with his thinking told BuzzFeed News. Obama believes a robust primary will be healthy for everyone, including Biden, and that it’s important to “let new voices rise up,” the source said.
Biden also could find challenges running as an extension of the Obama era in a political landscape now dominated by President Donald Trump on the right and by a new, post-Obama progressive energy on the left. Biden’s friendships with segregationists like the late Strom Thurmond weren’t factored in as liabilities when he was elected on the same ticket as the nation’s first black president. And policy initiatives and legislative acts that may have put him firmly in the mainstream decades ago look much different now, at a time when women, people of color, and younger voters have found a more prominent voice in the Democratic Party.
“Joe Biden is out-of-touch with the center of energy in the Democratic Party today,” Justice Democrats — a progressive organization that, like Biden, was active in the 2018 elections and, unlike Biden, is closely tied to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York — tweeted Thursday morning.
For Obama’s allies, the likelihood of more attacks like that from the new left could raise concerns about the damage Biden’s candidacy might do to Obama’s legacy. Though they became close in their eight years together at the White House, there’s awkward history between the two.
When they were rivals for the Democratic nomination in 2008, Biden called Obama “clean” and “articulate” — condescending words that often betray surprise that such attributes could be found in a person of color. Late in their first term, Biden got ahead of Obama in supporting marriage equality, stealing some glory for himself on a big piece of Obama’s legacy.
There’s also everything that’s happened since Obama and Biden left office: the hard nativist turn in the electorate toward Trump that many see as a rebellion against the Obama–Biden years; the poor aging of Biden’s Senate votes on issues like criminal justice; and a national dialogue over sexual abuse and harassment that has brought fresh scrutiny over Biden’s handling of the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court confirmation hearings and his habit of being overly touchy when greeting women.
Biden did not mention Obama in his Thursday announcement video, which focused explicitly on the white supremacist demonstrations two years ago in Charlottesville, Virginia, and Trump’s subsequent assertion that there were “very fine people” among the protesters. (A photo of Biden with his arm around Obama was featured prominently, though, in his Instagram rollout.)
Campaign officials said the video represented the first of three “core values” Biden will emphasize — a battle for the soul of the nation. The other two themes will focus on rebuilding the middle class and uniting Americans, which could provide opportunities for more explicit callbacks to the Obama years.
Biden’s Obama ties also are likely to provide some structural and staffing advantages, though not in a decisive way. His campaign manager, Greg Schultz, is a veteran of Obama’s Ohio campaigns and worked for Biden in the administration. Pete Kavanaugh, a deputy campaign manager, directed the Obama–Biden reelection campaign in New Hampshire, the first primary state. Other Obama veterans are likely to be on board as aides and donors, but the Obama network is spread out among other candidates, including South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg and former Texas lawmaker Beto O’Rourke. Biden’s political operation also has access to the reelection campaign’s email list, though his representatives did not immediately respond to questions about how that was acquired.
“President Obama remains beloved by Democrats, and talking about building upon his legacy — from making the economy work for all families to strengthening health care to restoring alliances — should be fertile ground,” said Ben LaBolt, who served as national press secretary on the Obama–Biden reelection. “Biden certainly has a right to claim that mantle and run on it, but I actually don’t think he’ll be the only one to run on it. Many of the candidates will make a direct appeal to those voters, from Sens. [Cory] Booker and [Kamala] Harris to Mayor Pete.”
Obama’s lack of an endorsement or public enthusiasm for Biden’s bid should not be interpreted as a snub, Katie Hill, a spokesperson with the former president’s office, told BuzzFeed News.
“Absolutely not,” Hill said in an interview. “President Obama has long said that picking Joe Biden as his vice president was one of the best decisions he’s made, period.”
Obama “has been happy to sit down with those seeking his advice about running” in 2020, Hill added. The discussions don’t wade into the granular details of a campaign — such as recommendations to focus on certain issues or to hire particular operatives — but more of a broader, “high-level” conversation about the reasons to run and what to expect when you do.
The former president has described the competitive 2008 primary as helpful to his candidacy.
“The primary toughened me up, and gave voters a sense of how I stood up under pressure,” Obama wrote in a Facebook post last month. “The long primary process allowed me to make inroads in states like Indiana and North Carolina — states we eventually won in the general election. And it allowed me to spend more time in places like Kentucky and Rhode Island, which don’t usually get a lot of attention during elections but are crucial to a fuller understanding of America. The experience made me a better candidate, and ultimately, a better president.”