Barack Obama poised to add his star appeal to Joe Biden's campaign

Daniel Strauss in Washington
Photograph: Rhona Wise/AFP via Getty Images

Former president Barack Obama has dipped his toes into the 2020 presidential campaign recently and is positioned to do more in the coming months as Joe Biden’s effort to defeat Donald Trump gathers steam.

Interviews with about a dozen Democratic strategists, party officials and people close to Obama want the popular former president utilizing his powerful online presence and focusing on rallying key Democrat constituencies that are critical to a Biden victory.

Obama is regarded as one of the most popular politicians in American politics and a huge asset within the Democratic party. He left the White House with a near-60% approval rating. His endorsement for any candidate is the political campaign equivalent of an oilman and hitting a gusher.

Obama would be most effective, interviewees said, in highlighting his former vice-president’s résumé, rallying key Democratic voting groups like African American women, and pushing voters to register.

The situation is unique. There hasn’t been a popular former two-term president eager to hit the trail for his former running mate for years. On top of that, the coronavirus pandemic limits in-person campaigning and rallies. Still, the strategists interviewed say Obama is valuable and should be used everywhere.

“You rarely have a former president that is more popular than the now-sort-of-nominee,” Democratic pollster Cornell Belcher said. “Barack Obama is the most popular political figure in America right now.”

Joe Biden and Barack Obama before a presidential primary debate in 2007. Photograph: Jim Young/Reuters

Valerie Jarrett, who served as a senior adviser to Obama during his time in the White House, said Obama is “committed to helping Vice-President Biden in any way the Biden campaign thinks is helpful. The pandemic is forcing everyone to be more creative since the conventional ways of doing business, including campaigning, are not possible.”

Obama has a robust social media presence with millions of followers on his Twitter account and Jarrett pointed to Obama’s endorsement of Biden, which was an online video now that campaign rallies have become a thing of the pre-pandemic past.

“I think you can tell from the video that he rolled out with his endorsement, one very useful platform is President Obama’s social media platform where he has more followers than any other politician by far.”

According to a Democratic strategist familiar with Obama’s thinking, the former president is eager to campaign for Democrats “up and down the ballot” in 2020. He plans to follow the lead of the Biden campaign as well as that of the main Democratic campaign arms – the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and other umbrella organizations.

Obama was an active surrogate to boost Democrats in the 2018 midterm elections but since then has taken a more restrained approach to the national spotlight. He has only waded into current politics a few times and mostly on an indirect basis.

Most recently, though, he delivered a commencement speech for college graduates where he said the coronavirus pandemic had “finally torn back the curtain on the idea that so many of the folks in charge know what they’re doing”. Obama didn’t mention Trump by name but the speech was widely regarded as a direct allusion to the president. It could also herald what Obama’s public appearances in the final months of the 2020 presidential campaign would be like.

Separately, during a closed event with thousands of supporters and Obama alumni, the former president warned that the justice department’s decision to drop charges against the former Trump administration national security adviser Michael Flynn put the rule of law at risk.

Campaign veterans and strategists say Obama is useful less as an attack dog going head to head with Trump and more as one who highlights a positive vision of why voters should elect Biden.

“To me, Obama is the world’s best character witness,” said Teddy Goff, who was digital director for Obama’s second presidential campaign. “Yeah, he can make the case that Trump is bad. He can certainly validate the case for Biden’s policies. But essentially he’s the most popular political figure on planet Earth and the one guy he entrusted with the single most important appointment of his life was Joe Biden.”

But Obama could also persuade more people to vote.

Meg Ansara, who was national regional director for Obama’s first presidential campaign and more recently battleground states director for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, said one of the key priorities, especially in this environment, is voter registration.

“I think voter registration is a huge place,” Ansara said, adding that persuading undecided voters is important for someone like Obama as well. “I’m a big believer that you need to do both in the bulk of these battleground states.”

There have been moments during the last three years when Democrats had wondered why Obama didn’t speak out more against Trump or weigh in more during the Democratic primary. That’s actually an asset now and adds weight to when Obama does speak out, said Guy Cecil, who runs the Priorities USA Super Pac.

“I think in some respects the Biden campaign benefits from the fact that Obama has not spent three and a half years in the political limelight, attacking the president, attacking the administration, engaging in a back-and-forth with [Trump],” Cecil said.

Corey Platt, a veteran Democratic strategist and campaign manager, said that Obama and Biden have done a good job of appearing together so far and he should keep doing that rather than just focusing on going head-to-head with Trump.

“I think he if continues to remind people about competency and progress under his administration it will make people feel good about Biden, change and sanity. If he engages Trump I think that could backfire,” Platt said. “He can help articulate Biden’s vision for what happens next year and promote confidence in getting through this crisis together.”