Obama the Elder Statesman

The 58-year-old may have a post-presidency unmatched in history.

Glenn Thrush has a fascinating look at former President Barack Obama’s behind-the-scene efforts to accelerate the end of the Democratic primary and start the healing necessary to bring its factions together.

Over the past year, Joseph R. Biden Jr. and former President Barack Obama practiced a political distancing of sorts, with Mr. Obama maintaining a posture of public neutrality in the Democratic primaries, offering counsel to any candidate who called (most did), and Mr. Biden saying he wanted to win on his own.

But with calibrated stealth, Mr. Obama has been considerably more engaged in the campaign’s denouement than has been previously revealed.


[I]n the weeks after it became clear that Mr. Biden was the party’s near-certain nominee, Mr. Obama — telling a friend he needed to “accelerate the endgame” — had at least four long conversations with his former vice president’s remaining rival, Senator Bernie Sanders. Mr. Obama’s efforts to ease the senator out of the race played a significant role in his decision to end his bid and, on Monday, endorse Mr. Biden, according to people close to the Vermont independent.


Mr. Biden’s team knew better than to ask Mr. Obama for his overt support during the primary campaign. But they felt he might have done more to spare them a few tribulations, and were incensed that some former Obama advisers, especially David Axelrod, repeatedly questioned Mr. Biden’s viability.


Party officials were more direct, prodding Mr. Obama to be more active behind the scenes, especially after Mr. Biden had begun his comeback by winning the South Carolina primary. But the former president, often communicating through Eric Schultz, a political aide who has also served as a bridge to the Biden campaign, insisted that his best use would be as a passive peacemaker.

“He kept his powder dry, and that gave him credibility, which made all the difference,” said Tom Perez, the Democratic National Committee chairman, who served as labor secretary under Mr. Obama.


Mr. Biden is grateful for Mr. Obama’s friendship but increasingly proud of his historic comeback. When news reports surfaced that Mr. Obama had called to congratulate Mr. Biden on his victory in South Carolina, the candidate made it clear to his staff that while his connection to Mr. Obama played a role in delivering African-American voters, Mr. Obama “had not lifted a finger” on his behalf, according to a senior Democrat with knowledge of his remarks.

Well, maybe a pinkie. Last year, Mr. Obama consulted with Mr. Biden’s team on campaign strategy, and he bucked up Mr. Biden after his loss in the Iowa caucuses. In a private dinner last fall with members of the liberal Democracy Alliance, Mr. Obama offered thinly veiled criticism of Mr. Sanders’s “revolutionary” policies and opined that voters wanted change, not to “tear down the system.”


Mr. Obama did not directly encourage Mr. Sanders’s rivals to endorse Mr. Biden ahead of the decisive Super Tuesday primaries. But he did tell Pete Buttigieg, a moderate, that he would never have more leverage than on the day that he was quitting the race — and the former South Bend mayor soon joined the avalanche of former candidates backing Mr. Biden.

Mr. Sanders, who in 2016 accused the Democratic establishment of conspiring to support Mrs. Clinton, took note of all these moves, but he has made no such charges against Mr. Obama.

In fact, one of his campaign advisers, speaking on the condition of anonymity in the wake of last month’s string of Sanders defeats, said the senator was grateful for Mr. Obama’s neutrality throughout the campaign. And Mr. Sanders, who has denied reports that he contemplated a primary challenge to Mr. Obama in 2012, had made a point of reaching out to the former president several times in recent months to update him on the progress of his campaign.

Obama has emerged as the party’s elder statesman in a way no other former President in my lifetime has been able. Lyndon Johnson didn’t live long and his legacy was tarnished by Vietnam. Richard Nixon was around for two decades but Watergate made him untouchable. Jimmy Carter’s charity work has made him much admired but his presidency was a Republican campaign plank for years. Ronald Reagan helped elect his vice president, George H. W. Bush, but his dementia kept him out of the spotlight after that. Bush, like Carter, was much admired in his post-presidency but one-termers don’t excite the base. George W. Bush was a two-termer but the Tea Party wing saw him as too liberal and the legacy of the war in Iraq has not aged well.

Bill Clinton, who remained wildly popular with Democrats, was the closest to what Obama has become. But his vice president, Al Gore, worked very hard to distance himself from Clinton, given the baggage of the Lewinski scandal and impeachment. And his campaigning for his wife divided the party in 2008 and 2016.

Obama was shrewd to keep his thumb off the scale. Biden ran on having been his veep in much the same way as Bush did with Reagan—without the need to issue “kinder and gentler” caveats. But it was at least plausible that Obama would have been just as happy to see Elizabeth Warren or any of the centrist governors and senators win.

Sanders knew Obama didn’t support him and Thrush describes their relationship as “frosty.” Still, Sanders seems to have appreciated Obama’s relative fairness in comparison to how the party treated him in 2016.

Mr. Sanders is much closer personally to Mr. Biden despite their political differences, but Mr. Obama, unlike Mr. Biden, remains a trusted figure to many Sanders supporters, so much so that his campaign released an ad that featured a patchwork of clips with Mr. Obama lavishing praise on Mr. Sanders.

In the end, Mr. Sanders concluded that negotiating a détente through the former president would ease the blow of his withdrawal on his base. Whether Mr. Obama’s involvement will ultimately draw Sanders voters to support Mr. Biden’s candidacy remains an open question, and some supporters, including Mr. Sanders’s own campaign press secretary, say they won’t.

In late March, Mr. Obama reached out to Mr. Sanders. The two men would talk at least three more times, with the former president reassuring Mr. Sanders that he had already accomplished much of what he had set out to do, moving the party — and Mr. Biden — substantially to the left, according to two people with knowledge of their interactions.

But, the people said, he mostly listened to Mr. Sanders, who was in a reflective mood, speaking candidly about his post-campaign plans and feelings about the race, the kind of conversation the two men had never had before.

Both Biden and Obama understand that politics is a long game. They’re both where they are now partly because they’ve built a network of relationships and avoided burning bridges to achieve short-term wins. And the fact that Sanders and Biden genuinely like one another and Sanders feels treated fairly by Obama makes it much more likely that the party will come together against Trump than was the case in 2016.

Given that Obama is nearly twenty years younger than Biden, he could be the party’s elder statesman for years—if not decades—to come. No other former President has done that.

FILED UNDER: Barack Obama, Bernie Sanders, Campaign 2020, Jimmy Carter, Joe Biden, US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Not the IT Dept. says:

    Just think what a president he could have been – and we could have had – if the Republicans had worked with him instead of against him over every single issue!

    And before the trolls claim I’m saying they should have gone along without independent thought (although that’s very easy for Republicans to do) or reservation, that’s not what working together means. Americans used to have that – read a history book, trolls.

  2. gVOR08 says:

    George W. Bush was a two-termer but the Tea Party wing saw him as too liberal and the legacy of the war in Iraq has not aged well.

    Not to mention the legacy of his other war in Afghanistan, torture, his huge tax cut driven deficit, and the financial collapse.

  3. gVOR08 says:

    @Not the IT Dept.: In yesterday’s Open Forum I linked to this New Yorker piece on Mitch McConnell. McConnell has done more to damage this country than even Trump. And the effects of his loosening of political finance and his judges will long outlast Trump.

  4. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    A prescient post, this.
    Obama is expected to endorse Joe Biden today.
    I’m curious about why Warren hasn’t endorsed? Hers will be rendered almost meaningless now.

  5. Thomas V Hilton says:

    Both Biden and Obama understand that politics is a long game. They’re both where they are now partly because they’ve built a network of relationships and avoided burning bridges to achieve short-term wins.

    If Bernie Sanders is finally learning this as well (even if his former press secretary doesn’t get it), that’s a very good thing. He could accomplish a lot if he embraces the party and works to build his relationships with other Democrats.

  6. Scott F. says:

    @Daryl and his brother Darryl:
    Considering that Biden has already gone on record with his endorsement of her proposal for student debt relief, I don’t know that it matters to her. It seems she had got some leverage without a quid pro quo.

  7. Michael Reynolds says:

    One of my concerns about Warren, though I backed her and contributed, was that I had doubts about her political instincts. Her endorsement is now worth pretty close to nothing, where it would have been valuable a couple months ago.

  8. Gustopher says:

    @Daryl and his brother Darryl:

    I’m curious about why Warren hasn’t endorsed? Hers will be rendered almost meaningless now.

    I think her silence spoke volumes. Ideologically, Bernie is closer to her, and she did not endorse him, and gave interviews where she said that he had done little about the tenor of some of his supporters.

    And, yes, when there is only one candidate, an endorsement will not sway anyone’s vote. But, an early endorsement of Biden would have just made healing the rift with the nominee and the BernieBros harder.

    As it is, the same BernieBros who responded to her with snake emojis are furious she did not endorse Bernie. Because, obviously, the best way to persuade someone is to insult them.

  9. mattbernius says:

    @Thomas V Hilton:

    even if his former press secretary doesn’t get it

    Which gets to one of the many reasons why Sanders was such a bad choice — whatever criteria he was selecting his staff on, ability to fall in line and support an overall productive direction wasn’t apparently one of those things.

  10. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    Vox has a run-down of 11 potential VP nods.
    I like Harris, and Warren.
    I think Klobachar helps most with moderates and the Midwest.

  11. EddieInCA says:

    @Daryl and his brother Darryl:

    Can’t be Warren. Joe already has the Northeast covered. It needs to be someone who can get African Americans to turn out in Milwaukee, Detroit, Philadelphia, Lansing, Madison, Pittsburgh. Many will come out for Joe, but he needs someone on the ticket who can galvanize and mobilize turnout in those communities.

  12. Thomas Hilton says:

    @mattbernius: Yup. A lot of the job of being President is hiring people–staff, cabinet, agency heads, judges, etc. Bernie hired Briahna Joy Gray, David Sirota, Nina Turner, and Jeff Weaver. I drew my own conclusions.

  13. Scott F. says:

    I’ve got to figure it’s going to be Harris which I think would be a stellar choice.

    Though I think the time is ripe for a more progressive platform (a la Warren), the Senator from Massachusetts would serve the country more by helping to queue up legislation for President Biden to sign.

    Then, I cut loose the prosecutorial side of Harris: first to figuratively indict the Trump/Pence ticket through her debate with the VP, then to lead a task force to investigate the whole Trump administrative once they are no longer protected by the Executive Office through either Justice Department policy or law.

  14. mattbernius says:

    @Daryl and his brother Darryl & @EddieInCA:
    Duckworth could be an interesting choice from a Midwest perspective. My preference would be someone who has been in an executive role though. Keisha Lance Bottoms could be a really solid choice.

  15. Raoul says:

    Another point to consider is Michelle Obama. So not only can Barrack be seen as an elder statement but in any given election Michelle could run and effectively creating a co-presidency. In other words he can wield actual power.

  16. 95 South says:

    @gVOR08: I read that article on your suggestion. He’s got to be the cleanest guy in Washington. The author found nothing. Although if you were trying to do a scare pull quote from the article, you did the best you could with “something something Southerner something KKK”. Really captured the thrust of the article.

  17. An Interested Party says:

    He’s got to be the cleanest guy in Washington.

    Yes, of course…I mean, who cares that he is a political whore when it comes to money and he has no real principles other than wielding power, at least he’s “clean”…

  18. Andy says:

    It’s always been interesting to me that Obama never built up an organization to control and influence the Democratic party, particularly to the extent the Clinton’s did. I respect him for not wanting to play machine games, but it’s also relegated him to the “elder statesman” role without nearly as much influence on the party as he could have.

  19. al Ameda says:

    I’m not sure about anyone else here at OTB, but I’m a bit nervous about the accusation/allegation of a 1993 sexual assault being levied by Tara Reade against Joe Biden.

    Sanders and Warren are smart to keep their delegates as insurance.

  20. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    @95 South:
    He’s got to be the cleanest guy in Washington.
    There is Chao funneling pork to Kentucky.
    There is the aluminum plant in exchange for sanctions relief.
    He is not clean by any stretch.

  21. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    @al Ameda:

    I’m a bit nervous about the accusation/allegation of a 1993 sexual assault being levied by Tara Reade against Joe Biden.

    The more I see about this the more I think it’s a smear.
    The timing is funky as hell.

  22. Lounsbury says:

    @Gustopher: The Bernie Bros who resent Warren are not winnable and pointless to heal any rift with them.

    Michael is right re Warren’s political campaign judgement.

  23. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @95 South: Gee, I dunno. I got:
    “McConnell is championing Walker…even though Walker has received a “not qualified rating from the [ABA]…”
    “The Majority Leader tried to jam through a package that heavily favored big business. …McConnell…soon reframed the narrative as a personal success story.”
    “[Some of McConnell’s critics] say that he knew that Trump was unequipped to lead in a crisis, but, because the President was loved by the Republican base, McConnell protected him. He even went so far as to prohibit witnesses at the impeachment trial, thus guaranteeing that the President would remain in office.”
    [from Bill Kristol]: “Demagogues like Trump, if they can get elected, can’t really govern without people like McConnell.”
    “As for McConnell, [a former Trump administration official said] ‘no one with a straight face would ever call him a populist–Trump came to drain the swamp, and now he’s working with the biggest swamp creature of them all.'”

    The article continues in the same vein for some length.

    The cleanest guy in Washington? I guess it depends on what one calls clean. By all means though, delude yourself in whatever ways you prefer. Keep telling yourself that you’re not a knee-jerk Trump supporter and only want good government if you want to. I know that I’ll believe you, at least.

  24. An Interested Party says:

    I’m not sure about anyone else here at OTB, but I’m a bit nervous about the accusation/allegation of a 1993 sexual assault being levied by Tara Reade against Joe Biden.

    I suppose anything is possible, especially with someone as touchy feely as Biden, but this all seems a bit fishy…and if nothing comes of this, are Republicans going to be the ones attacking Biden for this? The party of Donald Trump? *SNICKER* Now that’s funny…

  25. Michael Reynolds says:

    @al Ameda:
    It’s paper thin – a smart police chief would waste little time investigating and no prosecutor would charge. As a rule in these cases the argument has been that an accusation fits a pattern, but in this case there is no pattern, and the people trying to draw a link between hugging and sexual assault are diminishing the importance of sexual assault. Reade has written of her own personal crush on Vladimir Putin, no one else in Biden world has supported her and her story, like a fish story, gets bigger with every new iteration.

    I’m not impressed.