With traditional campaigning on ice for the foreseeable future, and still-raw feelings among the Democratic Party’s left flank about Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-VT) withdrawal from the race, former President Barack Obama’s looming endorsement of former Vice President Joe Biden is more important than ever.
But with the reunification of the two-term best friends comes obstacles inherent in rolling out what under normal circumstances would be a defining moment in Biden’s ascension to the nomination, including letting go of lingering resentment among some in his orbit that he had to muscle his way through a rocky primary on his own.
“Joe Biden, more than anyone, knows that Barack Obama is exceedingly fair and decent,” a Democratic source close to Biden said. “But there was just this tremendous sense of hurt in the sense that Joe had given him eight-plus years, and then afterwards constantly talked about the legacy of the Obama administration.”
“‘Why isn’t the president supporting me when I’ve done so much to, one, create his achievements and legacy and, two, just have a sense of friendship?’” the source said, summing up what they said are some of the conflicting emotions brought on by Obama’s decision not to engage in the primary until its end. “‘Why has this endorsement taken so long?’”
From the outset of the former vice president’s presidential campaign, Obama told Biden—whom he had discouraged from making a late entry into the 2016 presidential race—that he would not endorse any candidate until the primary’s conclusion. Biden himself has said that he proactively asked Obama not to endorse him so that whoever won the nomination would do so “on their own merits.”
“In the course of the primary campaign the Biden campaign very effectively used Obama in their advertising and messaging,” said Doug Herman, a Democratic strategist and Obama campaign veteran. “It was almost as though they had the endorsement.”
But others wanted something a bit more overt.
“If there’s one thing you can look at with Obama it’s his purism,” a source familiar with Obama’s thinking told The Daily Beast, noting that the former president was particularly sensitive to lingering hurt feelings from the 2016 race, when he endorsed Hillary Clinton more than a month before Sanders effectively dropped out. “I don’t think anyone would have wanted to step in that pile.”
Given that history, and mindful of Obama’s vow to stay out of the primary process until its conclusion, essentially no one on the campaign actually expected Obama to step in, even after Biden’s rout in the Michigan, Missouri and Mississippi contests in March—the last major races before the coronavirus pandemic effectively halted the primary—made his nomination all but a foregone conclusion.
“If you worked on the campaign, you never thought that Obama was going to endorse. It was never part of the calculation,” a Democratic strategist said. “In some sense, yes, he would have been useful many times along the way, but he saved for what is the most powerful thing he can do.”
But that didn’t mean that, on a more personal level, Biden and those in his close circle of longtime supporters and advisers weren’t wounded by the former president’s distance.
“I think that everyone is playing along with the campaign line on that—on Joe’s line—but, I mean, how could you not expect quote-unquote your best friend to support you?” the source close to the former vice president said. “For fuck’s sake—in what surreal world does a vice president not expect the support of their boss, someone that they were that close to, and oversaw so much of their foreign and domestic policy, and received the only Presidential Medal of Freedom with distinction?”
President Donald Trump has been happy to exploit what he contends is a supposed fracture in the storied Obama-Biden friendship, glibly suggesting in a White House press briefing on Thursday that the former president feels something is “wrong” with his two-term vice president.
“It does amaze me that President Obama has not supported Sleepy Joe. It just hasn’t happened. When is it going to happen?” Trump said. “He knows something that you don’t know. That I think I know. But you don’t know.”
Most Biden backers told The Daily Beast that Obama’s decision not to get involved in the primary actually made the former veep a stronger candidate, particularly during the campaign’s dark days early in the primary process, when he failed to finish higher than fourth in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada.
“There were so many people running for president who President Obama worked closely with over an eight-year period. It just made a lot of sense to sit tight, and it’s going to work out well because it’s a very unifying moment,” said Jim Demers, a co-chairman of Obama’s New Hampshire campaign in 2008 who endorsed Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and then Biden. “I think it made sense to wait and see how the race shaped up.”
“I respect President Obama’s decision to stay out of the primary process,” said Dick Harpootlian, a prominent Biden supporter and South Carolina state senator. “It made Joe stronger. He had to go through the adversity of Iowa and New Hampshire.”
In some ways, Harpootlian added, “he has done more than an endorsement,” referencing that Obama had helped make phone calls to several former Democratic presidential candidates after they suspended their campaigns. The subsequent rush of endorsements was seen as a major lifeline for Biden after the South Carolina primary that resuscitated his candidacy.
In many ways, Obama’s role as endorser-to-be is more important now than it might have been in the primary process, Democrats said, particularly with frustrated Sanders supporters still disappointed with the primary’s outcome and Biden effectively grounded by the national shutdown from the kind of retail politicking at which he excels.
“I think it will definitely change the temperature of the race,” said Antjuan Seawright, a Democratic strategist in South Carolina and senior adviser to the Democratic National Committee. “It will be part of the political superglue that will bring this party back together.”
“There were some people who wanted this process to play out, who were waiting on the sidelines to see what the thermostat reads,” Seawright added. Those who were anticipating some “high-intensity validation from Obama,” he said, will see those hopes gratified.