It was Saturday evening at The Essence Festival and CBS News anchor Gayle King was gently prodding former first lady Michelle Obama about the 2020 presidential race and how she felt about current frontrunner Joe Biden. “Has anybody caught your eye?” The first lady just reiterated: “Barack and I are going to support whoever wins the primary.” Well, what about the “dust-up” between Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and former Vice President Biden — have any thoughts? “No, I do not.” King followed up with a general question: “What are the qualities that you think make a good president?” Among those the first lady mentioned: “Someone who is careful with their words.”
Those are not exactly words you would use to describe Biden. If the Obamas’ silence on Biden was loud from the beginning, it now approaches a deafening roar.
As Biden’s polls slide and he loses whatever aura of inevitability he may have had because of his comments on segregation and busing — issues brought to the fore by a pair of young, black candidates — he has been left to twist in the wind. It is stunning that as Biden struggles to recover from his self-inflicted wounds regarding race, the first African American president, whom Biden loyally served for eight years, has not offered a word of comfort.
No one is more careful and strategic than Barack Obama. Rest assured that the lack of public comment from the former president and first lady is entirely intentional.
While the Obamas publicly give Biden the cold shoulder, he has centered his campaign around them. His team put together an online adthat consists of just supercuts of the former president saying nice things about him. Biden’s campaign platform might as well be a cut-and-paste job from the Obama presidency. And he even went so far as to tweet out a Barack and Joe friendship bracelet in possibly the most awkward social media moment since Beto O’Rourke went to the dentist. As Biden might say: “Come on, man,” he’s just not that into you.
Even the unwavering belief that the Republican “fever” will break, and that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and other GOP senators will start working in good faith with Democrats, comes right from the “Hope and Change” era. There’s just one problem. The Obamastalgia Express is missing one rather key ingredient: Obama.
Biden’s struggle with civil rights matters highlights exactly why the Obamas may not see him as a natural fit to inherit their legacy. No one would see Biden as a politician of the Obama mold. Biden was not chosen to be vice president because he could, or should, be heir to the throne. He was chosen because he was a known quantity in the political realm who could work well with Congress and perhaps soothe some of the anxieties white America may have felt about Barack Hussein Obama.
That makes him almost definitionally the opposite of Obama as a political personality. There are the obvious differences in identity between the old white guy and the young black candidate who captured the national imagination like a political rock star. There’s 36 years in the Senate versus two years in the Senate before running for president. Biden embodies the establishment powers-that-be, while Obama rose to power by upending Bill Clinton’s democratic machine and establishment power.
Apparently Obama is so desperate for an alternative political heir that he met with O’Rourke (who was dubbed “Obama, but white” back when people thought he would top the Democratic field of contenders). Obama even paid O’Rourke the ultimate compliment of comparing the young Texan to himself.
It’s worth remembering, after all, that this is the second time Obama has failed to back Biden for the presidency. By all accounts, he preferred his former nemesis and secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, over his “best buddy” for the top job back in 2016 as well. And it’s not just the Obamas themselves. All of Obamaworld has been notably lacking in enthusiasm for Biden’s candidacy. The Washington Post interviewed 53 former Obama advisers, senior White House and cabinet staff, and campaign professionals. Only eight of them had committed to supporting Biden.
The Obamas are consummate political players who rarely, if ever, take risks when it comes to endorsements. And that’s essentially what they publicly argue — they’re being cautious because anything can happen. As the first lady explained to Gayle King: “It is like trying to figure out who is going to win the World Series after the first seven games.”
But there is literally no one in the world better positioned to know whether Biden would make a great president than Barack Obama. Don’t you think that if he thought Biden would be spectacular he might let us know? Don’t you think if those who worked in the White House and on the campaign with him saw the makings of an incredible commander-in-chief, more would have flocked to Biden’s team?
Perhaps, then, we should listen carefully to what the Obamas aren’t telling us.