Barack Obama roared back into presidential politics by endorsing Joe Biden on Tuesday as Democrats work to unify ahead of a nasty general election campaign against President Donald Trump made trickier by the coronavirus pandemic and a worsening economy.
The party’s most popular leader, outshone perhaps only by his wife, Michelle, gave his approval less than a week after Biden’s last opponent, Bernie Sanders, bowed out. It was a carefully choreographed duet to benefit the presumptive nominee, who is struggling for attention while hamstrung by stay-at-home orders.
With the Clintons more polarizing than they’ve ever been and former President Jimmy Carter unfamiliar to younger voters, Obama, at 58, is the party’s elder statesman who can win over fractious Democratic groups.
Obama is “the singular messenger to bring the party together and to talk to persuadable voters who went from Bush to Obama to Trump,” said Ben LaBolt, a former Obama White House and campaign spokesman.
The endorsement was contained within a 12-minute web video on behalf of his former vice president, weaving his argument for Biden into his case against Trump, seeking to appeal not only to those already determined to support Biden but to those who may have trouble warming up to him.
Although the campaign would have preferred a rally where the two men stood side by side, raising their hands together, the video drew 1.5 million views in its first hour on Twitter and got repeated play on MSNBC. For Democrats, his reassuring words about the coronavirus pandemic were a reminder of what the presidency was before Trump and what it could be after him.
“Obama didn’t just endorse Biden, he reminded America of what it could be like to have a president that was competent and empathetic across the board to all who were affected by the crisis,” said Obama and Hillary Clinton communications director Jennifer Palmieri.
The pandemic heightened Biden’s need for Obama’s endorsement as he struggles for attention in a country focused almost entirely on the virus and its economic impact, while also complicating how Obama can be deployed. The campaign said Obama will continue to be involved in a public way, but only virtually until the campaign can rev up again in public.
“I will see you on the campaign trail as soon as I can,” Obama said in the video.
While the 44th president didn’t play a public role in the race until Tuesday, he had been engaged behind the scenes. Obama had said he wouldn’t endorse until Democratic voters had chosen their nominee but made clear he would talk to anyone thinking about running or already in the race.
All the top contenders took him up on his offer, some more than others. His conversations with Biden were, by the nature of their relationship, different. The two spent eight years working side by side in the White House and had become close family friends.
Obama doubted Biden’s chances when his former vice president mulled running in 2015 and again in 2019 and voiced them directly, a well-known history the Trump campaign tried to exploit on Tuesday, suggesting that Obama “had no choice” but to endorse Biden.
Biden felt an obligation to run this year, as polls showed him best positioned to beat Trump and allies urged him to jump in. He also has said he’d promised his son Beau, as he died in 2015, to keep fighting for the values they shared, which the elder Biden had hoped would lead his son to the presidency.
“You don’t have to do this, Joe, you really don’t,” Obama told Biden last year, the New York Times reported. But Biden, for all his deference to his former boss, pushed ahead, confident that if he could get the nomination, he could beat Trump.
Obama stayed quiet as Biden slumped through the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary in February. But as it became clear that Super Tuesday on March 3 could give Sanders a nearly insurmountable delegate lead, Obama made some subtle nods in Biden’s direction.
He called Biden to congratulate him for his nearly 30-point win in South Carolina — there’d been no such calls between him and Sanders in the previous weeks — and he also engaged with Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar as they dropped out and quickly endorsed Biden. Since Biden’s lead became insurmountable, Obama was talking again to Sanders.
Obama’s efforts to get all the candidates’ vanquished rivals on board were apparent in his video. He made a direct appeal to Sanders supporters and alluded to Elizabeth Warren’s argument that policymakers need to “do more than just tinker around the edges” and must fight for “structural change.”
Biden already has much of the party on board. But Obama’s popularity is in another stratosphere. His presidency was rated as “good” or “excellent” by 91 percent of Democrats surveyed last May for a CBS News/YouGov poll. In January 2018, a CNN poll found that 66 percent of Americans and 97 percent of self-identified Democrats said they had a favorable opinion of Obama.
He and Trump tied as the most admired man in America in 2019 in Gallup’s annual survey. Biden did not make the top 10, though Sanders and Carter did.There’s also still another popular Obama waiting in the wings: Michelle, the most admired woman in Gallup’s ranking. A source close to the former first lady said she “of course” supports Biden but will hold off on a more formal announcement until she can make a splash of her own.