How Barack Obama Will Affect the 2020 Election
As with Becoming, this book will have more than a standard release. Aides expect Obama to go on tour, with a rush of interviews in which he’ll be expected to talk not just about what he’s written, but about Trump and whatever political news is unfolding that day. When that conversation has come up internally, according to people involved in the discussions, he often says simply, “I can handle it.”
Voters shouldn’t expect him to do almost anything political, or even public, until next year, potentially not until the next Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee. But with former Vice President Joe Biden talking up Obama every chance he gets, the rest of the field is weighing how much they want to present themselves as a restoration of the previous administration, a continuation, or a new approach to politics entirely.
Obama hasn’t committed to fundraising or other political activity beyond an email that went out last week, signed with his name, announcing the creation of a new general-election fund at the Democratic National Committee. The aide who handled Obama’s political activity through the midterms left earlier this year, and has yet to be replaced. But a source close to the former president told me he is still receiving calls from 2020 hopefuls. The candidates are reportedly looking for more of the wise-elder conversations he hosted through last year’s midterms and beyond, scrounging for advice, and cherishing the fun of getting to talk with a former commander in chief. Some are already on their second or third chat. Obama remains firm that he won’t endorse soon, while aides are stressing that he might get involved later in the process—presumably, the thinking goes, to stop a candidate he sees as too divisive or likely to lose from becoming the nominee. (This hasn’t been specified, but most assume it would be to stop Bernie Sanders.)
Obama and his aides have carefully guarded when and how to deploy him; some have even theorized he could be called on to broker who the 2020 nominee is, if the primaries finish without a clear winner and Democrats face a contested convention. They feel gratified by what happened in the 2018 midterms, when after a year of being dogged by complaints that he’d disappeared, he burst into the final weeks of the campaign season with an intense assault on Trump. As the 2020 race kicked off, Obama stepped out of the way to avoid looming over the conversation, but he is acutely aware that if Biden secures the nomination next summer, that will change. Democrats with ties to Obama expect he will then have to get even more involved next year, both out of a personal friendship and a feeling that the election would become a referendum on his presidency.
The way Biden is campaigning, though, Obama is a regular presence on the trail. On his first day in the race, Biden told reporters that he’d asked Obama not to endorse him (despite firm statements from Obama’s orbit making it clear that he’d decided himself not to endorse his former veep). During his Philadelphia rally this past weekend, Biden said, “Let me stop here and say something we don’t say often enough as a party or as a nation: Barack Obama is a man of extraordinary character, courage, and decency. He was a president our children could look up to and did. He was a great president. I was proud to serve every day as his vice president, but never more proud than on the day we passed health care.”