What Obama Is Whispering to Biden


Biden stands with Obama onstage during a campaign fundraiser in Los Angeles earlier this month.
Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Joe Biden figured it was a good time to catch up with his old boss. He knew Barack Obama was about to leave gray Washington for his annual Hawaiian Christmas vacation, so he invited him for lunch last December at the White House. It wasn’t just a holiday get-together. For months, Biden’s poll numbers had been trending in the wrong direction and his party had been growing uncomfortably anxious about him as the election year approached. His day job was not much easier, as Israel’s war in Gaza intensified and Russia’s war in Ukraine dragged on. Biden knew Obama had been watching his situation, that he’d started digging into the state of the campaign a bit, and that he’d be willing to offer some thoughts.

Back when they were in office together, Obama would lead their regular lunches and use the time to discuss the policy and political topics that were on his mind that week and sometimes family too. These days, they talk less frequently, and Biden leads the conversations when they do, using Obama as a trusted and experienced source of advice. As they sat far from prying eyes in the White House, the conversation naturally turned to the coming election. When Biden brought up 2024, Obama already knew what he wanted to say. His primary objective was to remind Biden how their own reelection campaign had been organized in D.C., in its Chicago headquarters, and in the battleground states. It was all fairly unsurprising by the standards of a secret meal shared by presidents.

Then the trouble started. Their lunches tend to be unannounced to anyone but need-to-know-level aides, and none sit in when Biden and Obama chat. In Washington, that means that rumors about their conversations circulate faster than reliable word about what they’ve actually discussed — especially when things aren’t going well politically. For years now, many Washington Democrats have been contradictorily convinced that there must be a growing distance between the pair and that Obama must possess some secret plan to help his old partner — and they are in constant search of evidence for both. An agitated game of telephone took off among some of these semi-plugged-in liberals around the end of last year, following not just that one White House meeting but also a handful of conversations between Obama and Biden advisers. As the rumor mill had it, Obama was especially unnerved about the race, which Biden was losing, if swing-state polls were to be believed. Not only that, the 44th president had supposedly urged the 46th to install a trusted senior adviser or two at his campaign headquarters in Wilmington — someone like Obama’s 2008 campaign manager David Plouffe — rather than keeping his inner circle intact in Washington. As the whispers circulated, so did the confusion: Obama’s freaking out? And he wants Biden to hire Plouffe to fix the campaign?

This was off the mark, according to a range of high-ranking Democrats familiar with both presidents’ thinking at the time and in the months since. Obama did, in fact, think Biden should dispatch at least one trusted White House staffer to the campaign’s Delaware HQ, mirroring how Obama had split his own political brain trust between Chicago and Washington in 2012. Plouffe had stayed in D.C. when David Axelrod left the White House for Chicago. And just weeks after the presidents met, Biden planted two of his top White House counselors, Mike Donilon and Jen O’Malley Dillon, in Wilmington to help run the campaign.

Though “his anxiety about the election is real,” in the words of one Obama friend, the ex-president’s concerns sounded a lot like those of other top Democrats, according to others who’ve spoken with him. Those who are in regular touch with Obama say these nerves are not a reflection of any particular angst about Biden or his team but of the broader reality: The country is closely divided, the media landscape is fractured, and Donald Trump may very well win. Obama has always acknowledged to friends and worried supporters in search of reassurance that the race is likely to be a nail-biter. Yet he has remained careful about not evincing any specific concern or complacency about the campaign, aware that reports about his feelings are unlikely to help the Democratic cause.

None of which is to say he’s exactly holding back. Obama is increasingly involved in Biden’s campaign, but his role looks different from what it was in 2020, as does their relationship — which has always been far more complicated than understood by much of the public and many Democrats. Largely because of their shared time in office, Biden and Obama remain as close as any two occupants of the Oval Office have been, yet both of them have mused about how their approaches to the job have diverged starkly at times, leading to comparisons that have alternately flattered one and the other over the past three years. Throughout Biden’s presidency, Obama has been careful to be almost universally positive about him, often casting private analysis of the administration in a sympathetic light with regular reminders that the presidency is complicated. Biden has always spoken fondly of Obama but has equally made no secret of his wish to avoid what he regards as some of Obama’s biggest errors in office, including in his interactions with Congress and the military brass, especially over the war in Afghanistan. He has not always taken Obama’s political advice either and has at times outright questioned Obama’s judgment when it came to recent campaigns. (He has not forgotten Obama’s past skepticism of his own presidential ambitions.) Though they still usually see eye-to-eye on big-picture political matters, they have not always kept in regular close touch during Biden’s administration, sometimes leaving any coordination to their aides. Today, there is not much for Biden to consider about Obama’s role beyond the specific ways his old boss might be most useful.

Campaigning for Georgia senator Raphael Warnock in Atlanta in 2022.
Photo: Elijah Nouvelage/Bloomberg/Getty Images

The moment is not as simple for Obama, who has been adamant about distancing himself from day-to-day politics for much of his post-presidency but who has nonetheless followed it closely and made clear to Biden that he will help when and how he thinks he can. Still, Obama has faced heat from both lefties critically reassessing his legacy and liberals who want to see more from him — just as he has tried focusing on his own projects in philanthropy and media. This year, he is highly likely to reprise his role as one of Biden’s most prominent surrogates come the fall. He has also gotten publicly involved earlier than many anticipated. Just this month, he joined Biden onstage in Los Angeles for his second splashy campaign fundraiser, this one featuring George Clooney, Julia Roberts, and Jimmy Kimmel. Between bashes like that and less glamorous efforts, the ex-president has already brought in more than $65 million for Biden, according to a Democrat familiar with the campaign numbers. He has filmed ten video clips that the Biden team has used as digital advertisements and more are likely to come. Both presidents are working out the exact contours of Obama’s role in Biden’s campaign, just as the relationship enters a new chapter defined by Trump’s possible return and with it a threat to their joint legacy.

In 2019, Obama wasn’t even sure that Biden should run at all, and he was initially unconvinced by the team around his former vice president. Even as Biden publicly embraced his old boss and many former Obama aides joined his orbit, more still went elsewhere in the early days of that cycle. Plouffe counseled Beto O’Rourke, and O’Malley Dillon, Obama’s former deputy campaign manager, moved to El Paso to manage the Texan’s campaign; others flocked to Pete Buttigieg, Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, and Michael Bloomberg. Eventually, Obama came around to embracing Biden’s campaign, helping him with some personal pre-debate encouragement and lightly nudging both Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar to drop out before Super Tuesday — effectively cutting off Bernie Sanders’s path to the nomination. Once Biden was the presumptive nominee in 2020, Obama stepped up his efforts, speaking directly with Sanders about how to bring the senator and his backers into the fold, such as joint policy task forces between the Biden and Sanders teams. (Sanders accepted the plan before Obama had even told Biden’s aides about the idea.)

In the ensuing months, he spoke regularly with Biden, but even more with O’Malley Dillon and fellow Obama veteran Anita Dunn, who were running the Biden campaign, asking about strategy and how Biden was taking their advice. At one point, Obama convinced them to quintuple their digital budget while he set up a working group of tech titans led in part by Eric Schmidt and Reid Hoffman to help bolster Biden’s online operations. That summer, he convinced Steven Spielberg to assist in producing Biden’s convention programming — a role Spielberg is now reprising — and during the event, which was mostly held via livestream thanks to COVID, Obama reemerged publicly as one of the campaign’s top public advocates.

This year’s race has been a fundamentally different story from the start. Without having to scale a hobbling primary campaign into a national one amid a pandemic, and with the benefit of three years of incumbency, Biden and his aides saw little reason to rely on Obama so heavily again. Obama spoke occasionally to both the president and some of his top aides when they had questions or he was interested in hearing updates, but he mostly sat back and focused on his own foundation, giving paid speeches, and working as a producer. He was confident that the Democrats knew where to find him whenever they needed him. By late 2023, as the rematch between Biden and Trump became obvious, they came calling.

In private conversations with Biden advisers, Obama started offering some more thoughts on campaign mechanics, for one thing emphasizing the importance of building and maintaining robust staff in battleground states. At the December lunch — which was first reported by the Washington Post — he sought to remind Biden that in 2012, their campaign had an early and muscular ground game, including widespread field offices. (Since then, Biden has at times been fixated on field offices, visiting some in person and asking aides about progress in establishing more. At fundraisers, he has often updated donors on how many he has now opened compared to Trump.) As he has become more plugged in to Biden’s political thinking, Obama speaks more often with O’Malley Dillon — the campaign’s chair and functionally its executive — including about Biden’s efforts to target hard-to-persuade young and Black voters. At the same time, operatives in Obama’s personal office coordinate with Biden’s campaign to make sure Obama is in the loop on campaign updates. And he has kept in regular touch with the White House side, too, checking in with two more of his former top aides: chief of staff Jeff Zients and Dunn, a senior adviser.

All of this contact has largely quieted, if not erased, some of the once-common chatter about tensions between Obama’s and Biden’s networks (despite the frequent public assurances from everyone involved that they are part of one big political family). Some close to Obama were annoyed that more senior Biden aides didn’t attend last fall’s Obamaworld reunion in Chicago celebrating 15 years since he first won the presidency. Meanwhile, Biden has at times joined some of his advisers in bristling at the punditry of Axelrod, who last year raised the question of whether the 81-year-old president should stay in the race, and they have not always seen eye-to-eye with Plouffe, either.

However, some Biden backers grumbled that they would have liked to hear more of a defense of Biden from Obama when talk mounted that Biden should quit. Similarly, Obama stayed away from the Biden camp’s behind-the-scenes efforts to assuage nervous donors and power players. (“I would love if he was doing that, but we’re not rolling him out,” one top Biden ally involved with that effort told me in the spring.) And he avoided directly joining Democratic efforts to address more immediate threats, such as No Labels, perhaps worried that the perception of his involvement could only hurt.

One of Obama’s special concerns is the puzzle of breaking through to Gen-Z voters in a fractured media landscape. During the 2022 midterms, Obama met with a small group of TikTok influencers and filmed clips with them that reached upward of 31 million views. While in Los Angeles for this month’s fundraiser, he met with a larger group of more than 80 Instagram and TikTok creators whom he and the Biden campaign gathered in the hopes they would be especially influential with select important voter groups. “We live in a cynical time. Let’s face it, I think a lot of the people who watch you, listen to you, who are fans of you — a lot of times they feel turned off by the political discourse. And I get it,” he acknowledged, admitting that he usually watches sports coverage on TV, not political news. Recognizing that disengaged young voters are likelier to listen to these types of creators than more traditional sources of political information, he urged the group to use their influence on Biden’s behalf, even if they disagreed with him on certain matters. “Joe Biden’s basic trajectory — what he believes in his core about how you should treat other people and how we should be able to give opportunity for folks who don’t have it, and how we should care for the planet, for the next generation — he believes in the basic things that you believe in,” Obama argued. “Nine times out of ten, he’s going to make decisions that accord with your core beliefs.”

He evidently feels some responsibility to reach the youngest swath of voters. In March, Obama was seated between Bill Clinton and Biden during a fundraiser at Radio City Music Hall when the trio were interrupted by a young pro-Palestinian protester. Obama insisted on responding. “I think people, understandably, oftentimes, want to feel a certain — you know — purity in terms of how those decisions are made, but a president doesn’t have that luxury,” he said. “It is important for us to understand that it is possible for us to have moral clarity and have deeply held beliefs and still recognize that the world is complicated, and it is hard to solve these problems.” Obama chose Biden to be his running mate, he added, “because he has moral conviction and clarity, but he is also willing to acknowledge that the world’s complicated, and he’s willing to listen to all sides in this debate, and every other debate, and try to see if we can find common ground.” Biden looked on approvingly, clearly appreciating Obama’s point.

Yet it is far from clear that this is the sort of help Biden will embrace when it comes to communicating to skeptical young voters. Some party strategists have quietly sided with the analysis offered by popular radio host Charlamagne Tha God in a widely shared New York Times interview earlier this spring. “He just don’t feel like he’s of this moment. And maybe that’s his own doing,” he said of Obama. “Don’t get me wrong, he’s one of the best speakers of all time. But I just don’t know what he could say in this moment that’s going to move people.” After all, voters who turned 18 the last time Obama was on the ballot are 30 today; when it comes to young voters, some Democrats have weighed the pros and cons of relying more on figures who are more popular with them, like Sanders or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The most effective surrogates among disenchanted people overall might end up being celebrities who scan to average Americans as altogether nonpolitical.

To anyone watching closely, it’s been obvious that Obama has been thinking about where he fits in today’s political mêlée and working on his public tone. When he joined Biden and Clinton in New York, the trio sat for a podcast interview in which Obama brought an I-can’t-believe-this-stuff-really-needs-to-be-said intonation to his explanations of the complications of the presidency and global affairs. Onstage at Radio City, after catching up with Biden on Air Force One, he took on the role of chief cheerleader. He advocated that voters take a deep breath and consider the big picture. A few months later, onstage with Biden in L.A., he further honed some of the arguments his party colleagues were making about Trump.

“Part of what happened over the last several years is we’ve normalized behavior that used to be disqualifying,” he said. “We had the spectacle of a nominee of one of the two major parties sitting in court and being convicted by a jury of his peers on 34 counts. You have — his foundation is not allowed to operate because it was engaging in monkey business and not actually philanthropic work. You have his organization being prosecuted for not paying taxes.” Even if you put aside Trump’s daily outrages, Obama argued, it should be clear that Biden is the candidate standing for basic American values.

That’s likely to be a big part of his public message when he fully reemerges this fall. As one of the party’s most popular figures for the last two decades, and still one of its strongest orators, he is almost certain to headline rallies again in September and October, having long ago come to the conclusion that he is most effective as a motivator when used sparingly and mostly once Election Day is in view.

Obama has felt most comfortable sticking to familiar themes, and though he has met with social-media influencers, he is also likely to appear in plenty of tried-and-true ads and behind lecterns on swing-state campuses. This — Give it some time; it’s worked before — is the likeliest and most effective rebuttal to takes like Charlamagne’s. Obama hasn’t shied from pointing out the extreme nature of Trump’s candidacy or the outrageous circumstances surrounding it — his invocation in Los Angeles of Trump’s 34 felony convictions came days before Biden’s campaign fully leaned into highlighting them itself. But he has also argued to Biden and his camp that one of their emphases should be in the contrast with Trump over health-care policy, especially protecting Obama’s very popular signature Affordable Care Act.

Often these days, those who speak with Obama walk away with the clear impression that his fundamental view of politics, and of his ultimate political role, has only shifted so much even amid all of the past decade’s upheaval. He is as forceful as anyone in declaring this moment’s peril, but after years of seeming to question the deeper meaning of Trump’s rise and possible return, Obama now comes across as having concluded that no radical rethink is necessary for his own conception of political progress or mass movements.

Early this month, the former president met behind closed doors with major donors to Democrats’ Senate-campaign committee in suburban Maryland just days after his mother-in-law, Marian Robinson, had died. He recounted her journey in, then out of, the segregated South Side of Chicago. “I have to constantly remind my own daughters that this stuff has never been easy. We sometimes have a nostalgia, and we romanticize the past,” he said, reflecting briefly on this political moment’s grave stakes before returning to a familiar argument. “The struggles that we’re now in were the struggles that she experienced 50, 60, 70 years ago,” he said of Robinson, “and they’re the same struggles that America went through 100 years ago and 200 years ago. Those warring spirits in the American soul, they have been around a long time. And sometimes we move back a step before taking two steps forward. I have no doubt that we will do the same this time. So part of what I want to leave you with is a sense of hopefulness.”

That day, one new survey showed Biden’s approval rating 18 points underwater. A run of national polls had recently revealed the presidential race to be essentially tied a week after Trump’s conviction. But Obama wanted the donors to remember that “despite having been out of office for a while, I am still the hopey-changey guy.”

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