For almost a full year now, Barack Obama has gone out of his way to avoid commenting on 2020’s presidential primary. He doesn’t sit for interviews where he might be asked about it, he won’t mention candidates’ names, and even in private, he often changes the topic when friends try to get his take on the state of the race. Insofar as he has sought any role in the process, he preferred that it be as a detached advisor to contenders who request his big-picture guidance — he never wanted voters thinking he was trying to sway the contest. Lately, however, a very specific, very influential slice of the Democratic Party has been losing its mind, and Obama determined his role would have to change. So, on Friday evening, he climbed onto a stage in a basement ballroom in Washington’s Mandarin Oriental hotel and asked his party’s liberal elite to chill out a bit.
“We have a field of very accomplished, very serious, and passionate, and smart people who have a history of public service, and whoever emerges from the primary process, I will work my tail off to make sure they are the next president,” he told the room of a few hundred of the party’s biggest donors and top strategists, gathered for a conference of the Democracy Alliance group.
The room was populated by the Warren-leaning version of the kind of people, Obama knew, that have recently been wearing out their loafers searching for a savior candidate, constantly fretting about electability, and seeding a national conversation that has borne the recent, late entries of Michael Bloomberg and Deval Patrick into the race. So maybe it was appropriate that it was here, after nearly three years of detachment from workaday politics, that Obama signaled for the first time a willingness to try and modulate his party’s debate — in this case to a less frantic tenor. “To those who get stressed about robust primaries,” he added, fully embodying this new slightly exasperated adult-in-the-room role, “I just have to remind you: I had a very robust primary.”
Yet Obama’s remarks were not only aimed at the donors and chatterers. He had a sterner-than-usual warning for the campaigns, too. While over the last year-plus he has been sparing in weighing in on individual primary flash points, here he cast himself as understanding but concerned emissary to what he perceives as political reality. “This is still a country that is less revolutionary than it is interested in improvement,” he said. “The average American doesn’t think we have to completely tear down the system and remake it.” In Obama’s telling, Americans are conservative, not in ideology, but in temperament.
“Voters, including Democrats, are not driven by the same views that are reflected on certain left-leaning Twitter feeds, or the activist wing of our party,” he warned. “And that’s not a criticism to the activist wing — their job is to poke and prod and text and inspire and motivate. But the candidate’s job, whoever that ends up being, is to get elected.”
It’s a vision that clashes with some on his party’s left, most obviously including supporters of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. And while he dismissed the debate between persuading voters and energizing base Democrats as “a false division,” he explained that he’d been thinking about how the candidates have been talking about him on the trail. “I think it is important for candidates to push past what I was able to achieve as president. I wouldn’t run the same campaign today, in this environment, as I ran in 2008, in part because we made enough progress since 2008, of which I am very proud, that it moved what’s possible. So I don’t want people to just revert to what’s safe, I want them to push out and try more, alright? So we got the Affordable Care Act. It was a really good starter home, as I say,” he said. “I don’t want people just standing pat, because we still have millions of people who are uninsured.”
“I don’t take it as a criticism when people say, ‘Hey, that’s great Obama did what he did, and now we want to do more.’ I hope so. That’s the whole point,” he said. “I think it is very important to all the candidates who are running, at every level, to pay some attention to where voters actually are, and how they think about their lives. And I don’t think we should be deluded into thinking that the resistance to certain approaches to things is simply because voters haven’t heard a bold enough proposal, and as soon as they hear a bold enough proposal that’s going to activate them. Because you know what? It turns out people are cautious, because they don’t have a margin for error.”
Onstage, Obama stuck to most of his personal Trump-era rules: He didn’t mention the president, or the news of the day — in this case the impeachment hearings. He didn’t mention any of the presidential candidates by name, either. But his remarks, delivered onstage next to Stacey Abrams, painted the clearest picture yet of Obama’s view of the primary, and of the direction of his party in the Trump era. And his timing sent as much of a message to the operatives in the room, and the candidates in the race, as his words.
Within the last week, Bloomberg let it be known he was closing in on a run (on which Obama got no heads-up), a decision largely made as a result of weakness the former New York City mayor perceives in Joe Biden’s campaign. And just a day before Obama addressed the donors, his friend Patrick surprisingly filed for the New Hampshire primary, a year after initially ruling it out. That move produced a chorus of speculative whispers in Washington about Obama’s possible role — some of the former president’s friends began suspecting this was in the cards late this summer after Patrick quietly told the Obama Foundation of his intention to leave its board. But despite their regular conversations, Patrick in fact only informed Obama of his final plan to run this week, according to Democrats familiar with the discussions.
Obama himself has said in other private talks that he thinks it’s rather late in the game for any new candidate to enter the contest. In private earlier this year he praised both Pete Buttigieg and Beto O’Rourke, but he also spoke more often about people who represent the future of the party — like, in his mind, Abrams and Andrew Gillum — than the presidential race. His political allies, meanwhile, remain scattered across the primary field, with former top aides peppering the senior ranks of all the serious campaigns.
And while perhaps Obama’s closest confidant, Valerie Jarrett, is a longtime Patrick booster, she told me on Friday that she told the former Massachusetts governor the same thing she said to all the candidates who asked: that he needed “first, a clear notion as to why you’re the best person for the job. And we talked about the challenges of a late entry, we talked about did he have the fire in his belly to do this, and did his family have the ability to make the sacrifices that were necessary? And, having been through this twice with the Obamas, is this something you are uniquely qualified to do?”
Then, like her old boss, Jarrett made sure to note, “The field is strong. We have an embarrassment of riches in the Democratic Party right now.”