vision 2020

What Obama Is Saying in Private About the Democratic Primary

President Barack Obama
President Obama is keeping quiet, for now. Photo: Mark Makela/Getty Images

Democratic leaders, whose two primary concerns these days are trying to keep Donald Trump in check and maintaining their own party’s unity, have had ample reason for concern in the first seven weeks of 2020. There was the end of Trump’s impeachment trial, the Iowa caucus fiasco, and the growing certainty that their intensifying presidential nominating contest will likely drag on for months. One Thursday afternoon in late January, they briefly had another worry to contend with: the entire party losing its mind after a Fox Business reporter tweeted a “SCOOP” that Barack Obama “is growing increasingly anxious about @BernieSanders rise in the national polls & where the avowed socialist would take the country; he is considering a public statement addressing it.” The report was quickly rubbished by those close to the former president — such an action would obviously be painfully out of character for the studiously quiet Obama, who has always been judicious about weighing in on Democratic primary fights, and whose defining post-presidential quality has been distance. But the tweet and ensuing hysteria did renew an unsettling round of questions among candidates, elected officials, campaign strategists, voters, and donors: Well, what does Obama think of all of this?

The truth of Obama’s silence on the 2020 primary is that it’s not just about his obvious wish to stay out of the spotlight, but it also reflects a choreographed strategy. With the race looking more and more likely to grow bitter and messy, and maybe even wind up in a contested convention, the former president and those around him are increasingly sure he will need to play a prominent role in bringing the party back together and calming its tensions later this summer, including perhaps in Milwaukee, where the party’s meeting is scheduled to be held in July. So he is committed to not allowing his personal thoughts to dribble out in the meantime, directly or via leaks, conscious of how any sense that he’s taking sides in intraparty disputes could rock the primary in the short run and potentially undermine his ability to play this larger role in the months ahead. “He says one sentence about being woke at some conference, and the Twitterverse freaks out,” recalled one of his friends, referring to the former president’s comments at an Obama Foundation meeting in Chicago that set off a firestorm. He and his advisors “are very aware [of the effect of] one word that Barack Obama says.” And he’s being careful to ensure he can be seen as an honest broker in June and July — a potentially necessary designation given both his status as the party’s most popular figure and the real possibility that Sanders, or another candidate, could enter the summer with a plurality of the delegates needed for the nomination but not an outright victory. “Obama is going to look at the [delegate math to determine] the outcome. If the math brings someone [to the nomination], he’ll back it in full,” one person who still speaks with the former president told me recently. “His biggest dilemma is if Bernie is at 35-40 [percent of the delegates], and no one else is [at] 20. Does he say, ‘You have to go with who won [a plurality of] the delegates, and who looks to be the true front-runner?’”

But Obama is hardly the only Democrat sweating that particular possibility, especially with Michael Bloomberg — who some in Obama’s orbit favor but many regard warily — poised to swoop in on the process in March. Sorting out that confusion might be the most complicated scenario for Obama, the person added. The reality might be more simple: “It’s not gonna happen before the convention, [but] he’s gonna be all-in for Bernie if he’s the nominee.”

Watching from afar, Obama is for now sticking to the plan he set out at the beginning of the election cycle. He’s been going out of his way to remind worried Democrats who come to him that his 2008 primary was long and brutal, and still ended in his election. And his purposeful distance from the race isn’t all about managing party factions in the short-term. He speaks with fewer people regularly about politics than ever — he rarely even talks with Tom Perez, the former Labor secretary he helped install as Democratic National Committee chairman, for example — in part because he is less interested in the back-and-forth than he was even as president, when his lack of patience for political horse-trading and debating was notorious.

But this isn’t just about distance from the action, either — it’s also because he doesn’t want to provide Trump with a political foil, and because he wants a new generation of Democratic leaders to step up, and to stop relying on him. (He’s only gotten directly involved in one domestic political fight since Trump was elected, working behind the scenes to help save the Affordable Care Act.) While he’s following the race by reading newspaper reports, he’s been disengaged with its day-to-day dynamics, sure that he’ll have to catch up on them later this year anyway — he doesn’t even make a point of watching the debates. Obama has insisted that he’ll support Democrats’ nominee, no matter who it is, publicly saying so as recently as November. Privately, he reminds friends that the views of the candidate — even if it’s Sanders, whose democratic socialism is a significant break from Obama’s technocratic progressivism — will more closely reflect not just his values, but Democrats’ and the nations’, than Trump’s. He often adds that he expects to campaign often and loudly in the general election, even if he has to step in to try and unite liberals, moderates, and progressives beforehand.

Until then, Obama has reminded those who ask, he won’t speak up unless he feels compelled to make any specific, candidate-neutral points to ensure Democrats win in November. “There is no way Barack Obama is intervening, unless something very strange happens,” said a friend who’s heard his reasoning. “He just doesn’t have that in him.” Even if he felt like speaking out against Sanders specifically, he knows such a statement would likely ruin his standing on the left and almost certainly divide the party just when it needs uniting, according to multiple people who’ve spoken with him about the race. Obama and those around him “have a very clear understanding that if they put their finger on the scale right now, all of a sudden half of the Democratic Party hates him,” an influential Democrat who keeps in touch with Obama explained.

Anyway, Obama’s team has made clear to Sanders’ inner circle that the former president has no intention of getting involved in the primary. And people from both camps who are familiar with the discussions say the pair has also spoken directly during this election cycle. Top Sanders advisors accordingly viewed the Fox Business report as a case of rogue former Obama aides speaking wishfully and out of turn, rather than a preview of things to come. (The Democratic establishment backlash will be fierce if Sanders starts running away with the nomination, they’re sure, but it won’t come from the ex-president.) The Sanders camp also takes reassurance from 2016, when Obama easily could have spoken up for Hillary Clinton — his chosen candidate — during the rougher parts of the primary, but was careful not to. When Obama finally spoke with Sanders about his impending exit from the race in the summer of 2016, according to multiple Democrats briefed on the private conversation, it was only after it was clear that Clinton would be the nominee. He talked about delegate math and thanked Sanders for bringing new voters into the process but did not share any judgments on the candidate’s ideology or offer his own differing views of the party’s shape or the electorate’s preferences.

None of this is to say Obama and Sanders suddenly see eye-to-eye on what the party’s larger priorities should be. In private these days, Obama doesn’t say he’s bothered by Sanders himself, but he still talks about the need to balance pragmatism with idealism, and he remains wary of Sanders’s tactics and the political style of his wing of the party, according to multiple people who’ve talked politics with him in recent months. (This poked into plain view in November, when Obama said: “This is still a country that is less revolutionary than it is interested in improvement. They like seeing things improved, but the average American doesn’t think we have to completely tear down the system and remake it.” He never used Sanders’, or any candidates’, name, but the point landed. “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 continued. “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.”)

Still, Obama is always careful to make sure people he’s talking with don’t get the impression he would try and stop Sanders from getting elected, and he even offered some of the senator’s signature policies oblique praise in his first major political speech post-presidency. “Democrats aren’t just running on good old ideas like a higher minimum wage, but they’re running on new ideas like Medicare for All, giving workers seats on corporate boards, reversing the most egregious tax cuts to make sure college students graduate debt free,” he said at the University of Illinois in September of 2018. And Obama has, at times, found Sanders to be a reasonable politician, even when they disagree: in 2016, the then-president asked the senator not to make his anti-Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement stance an issue on the floor of the national convention in Philadelphia, according to multiple Democrats clued in on the discussion. Sanders agreed.

This time around, Obama has sought to make sure the full field of Democratic candidates understands his intention to be both neutral and passive. He made that point when meeting with many of them individually in his West End Washington office while they were considering running, a series of sit-downs one later privately described as “office hours.” He’s spelled out to them that he is open to answering any questions they may have as they pursue the presidency, and his small staff has made sure the campaigns know who in Obama’s orbit to contact in case anything comes up and they need open lines of communication. (Often, the arrangements are informal and based on previous relationships; almost every serious campaign has senior Obama campaign or administration alums near their top ranks.) Later, as candidates have dropped out, Obama has proactively contacted them to thank them for running, to offer himself up as a sounding board, and to talk about their futures, according to Democrats familiar with the outreach. In some cases, he’s spoken with pols returning to Washington with long careers ahead of them — Kamala Harris, for example. In others, the path ahead for the failed candidate is less obvious. Earlier this year he asked to meet with Steve Bullock when the Montana governor was planning to be in D.C. for this month’s National Governors Association meeting. When they met, Obama spoke with him, at Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer’s request, about running for the Senate this year. Bullock reiterated he had no intention of joining that race, said multiple people familiar with the exchange.

Still, with friends behind closed doors Obama has occasionally offered brief commentary on some of the candidates. Last year he said he’d been impressed with Warren, with whom he had a rocky relationship as president, and who — like Sanders — criticized his paid speaking gigs soon after he left office. Early on he said he liked what Beto O’Rourke was trying to do, and he used similar terms to describe Pete Buttigieg, who he’d named in late 2016 as a future party leader alongside fellow then-future candidates Harris and Michael Bennet. And he spoke regularly with his friend Deval Patrick before the former Massachusetts governor got into the race in mid-November. But Obama told him he was skeptical he could gain traction so late, and reiterated that he would not suddenly weigh in on the race on Patrick’s behalf. (Patrick, who stepped down from the Obama Foundation board before announcing his campaign, also speaks regularly with Obama associates like Valerie Jarrett, the ex-president’s closest advisor, and his political strategist David Axelrod. Obama Foundation chairman Marty Nesbitt — another close Obama friend — held a January fundraiser for him. But Patrick dropped out after a disappointing showing in New Hampshire last week.)

No candidate has directly asked Obama for his endorsement, under no illusions that he’s about to offer it, according to people who’ve spoken with him about the conversations. Still, he’s aware it’s a sensitive matter for Joe Biden, in particular. After working behind the scenes to push Clinton into the 2016 race and Biden out of it, Obama this time talked often with Biden before he entered the race, but he has been unimpressed with his former partner’s campaign, say Democrats with whom he’s shared his assessment.

Then there’s Bloomberg, who might, at first glance, seem to be a favorite of many surrounding the ex-president: he’s being advised by Mitch Stewart, one of the few former campaign aides who’s regularly spoken with Obama about politics even in his post-presidency, and he’s been running ads featuring Obama on heavy rotation. But the former mayor was one of the only serious contenders not to give the former president a heads-up before he entered the race, according to Democrats close to Obama, and some of Obama’s closest, and oldest, political associates have bristled at the way Bloomberg’s ads have framed them as longtime allies. In recent days, some have been rehashing how Bloomberg appeared with both Obama and John McCain in 2008 — calling the then-senator not experienced enough to be president at the time — and how he only endorsed Obama over Mitt Romney at the very end of the 2012 race. A Friday evening HuffPost report revealing that in 2016, Bloomberg appeared to lay some blame for racial divisions in the country with Obama didn’t help, nor did a Sunday CNN story detailing how Bloomberg called Obamacare a “disgrace” in 2010.

Biden, for one, shared his displeasure at a fundraiser just off of Central Park South on Thursday: “The advertising I’ve seen, you’d think that Mike was Barack’s vice president,” he told donors. Obama’s former campaign manager David Plouffe chimed in on Friday morning: “The power of saturation advertising,” he tweeted. “Someone at my gym in California asked me why Obama chose Bloomberg over the rest of the field.” On Saturday, the Wall Street Journal reported Axelrod has been fielding similar questions from professional Democrats.

Of course, Bloomberg is far from the only remaining candidate invoking Obama like this: Buttigieg often talks about him on the campaign trail, and Obama’s face also makes appearances in ads promoting Warren, Tom Steyer, Tulsi Gabbard, and, of course, Biden. Before the former vice president launched his campaign last year, his team worked out an arrangement with Obama’s allowing him to use their old campaign email list, and also to talk about and feature his relationship and work with the ex-president as much as he wished, as long as he didn’t imply an endorsement, according to Democrats familiar with those discussions. Obama knew Biden would rely heavily on imagery featuring the pair.

The same isn’t true for other camps, few of which have asked the Obama team’s permission to use his image and words, say Democrats close to the former president. (All of the clips and photos shown in the ads were previously public.) Those in Obama’s close political circles say he doesn’t mind being featured so prominently, but that he’s been amused by all the attempts by candidates to associate themselves with him after numerous early primary-season discussions about the shortcomings of his presidency.

He has no plans to note that irony, though, or even to reach out to the campaigns blasting out his image. It’s not like he sees the ads all that much, anyway — not even the seemingly inescapable Bloomberg spots. Obama’s aversion to TV news hasn’t abated now that he has enough time on his hands that he’s compared himself to Neo, the time-slowing Keanu Reeves character from The Matrix, say people who’ve been spending time with him. If he’s in front of a television, they say, he’s probably watching sports.

What Obama Is Saying in Private About the Democratic Primary