For all of the agonizing within Joe Biden’s inner circle over how to cure what ails the former vice president’s anemic presidential run – fourth place in Iowa, fifth place in New Hampshire, presumably another setback in Nevada this weekend – there’s an obvious fix: roll out Barack Obama’s endorsement post haste.
Specifically (and yes, it assumes that Biden would be Obama’s favorite among the Democrats remaining in the race), have the former president endorse his ex-running mate in the week leading up to the Feb. 29 Democratic presidential primary in South Carolina.
Why the Palmetto State? Because of sentimental value (in 2008, Obama won that state’s primary by a 2-1 margin over Hillary Clinton, carrying an estimated 80% of the African American vote) and political necessity (African Americans cast 61% of the primary vote in 2016 and will play an oversized role in 2020’s results). Short of a shout-out from Clemson football coach and local demigod Dabo Swinney, no other endorsement carries as much weight in South Carolina as that of America’s first black president (sorry, Bill Clinton).
But will Obama endorse Biden? Don’t bet on it.
As of last fall, the former president’s game-plan was to finish his memoirs, then campaign for the Democratic nominee. But that was before Biden’s downward spiral and the possibility that a “Democratic socialist” could lead in delegates earned and votes received by the time the curtain rises on July’s Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee.
So, what’s holding back Obama from coming to Biden’s rescue?
It’s not (always) what presidents do. American presidents past and present usually stay out of primary politics and intraparty rivalries. But there are exceptions – for example, Bill Clinton endorsing then-Vice President Al Gore in December 1999, six weeks before the first vote in Iowa.
Why did Clinton play favorites in the race between Gore and former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley? Maybe he wanted to “reward” Gore for standing by him during the past year’s impeachment saga – Gore walking a fine line between embracing the Clinton economy while distancing himself from the president himself.
Or, perhaps because he sensed a brush-off in the making, Clinton wanted to send a message that he was ready and available to stump for Gore (under political “what-if’s,” does Gore win the presidency if he unleashes Clinton in the likes of Tennessee and New Hampshire, rather than warehousing the president until the final days of the election?).
A more fitting parallel to Obama-Biden might be the odd relationship between Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
Having finished an embarrassing third in 1988’s Iowa caucuses, Bush would have killed for a Reagan endorsement before the next vote in New Hampshire. When Reagan did endorse in mid-May 1988, it was after the fact – a month following Bush having clinched the Republican nomination. As Reagan’s endorsement was more a recitation of Bush’s resume that citing his vice presidential accomplishments, the big announcement produced that most unsavory of Washington stories: the parsing of words and the president having to defend his seemingly tepid support.
The lesson for the Biden campaign: if Obama is willing to do the favor, push as hard as you can for script control.
An Obama endorsement is overrated. Having just explained why an Obama endorsement is vital to Biden’s fortunes, let’s take up the counterargument: the former president’s lousy track record in elections when he’s not on the ballot.
Barack Obama has been a part of America’s last five federal elections. He won big in 2008 (almost 53% of the national vote) and 2012 (51%). But on three other occasions, Obama tried to rally voters, only to fail spectacularly each time.
In 2010, Obama pitched the nation’s congressional races as a defense of his eponymous health care plan. Democrats ended up losing 63 House seats – the party’s worst setback in over seven decades and almost double the average of House seats lost by an unpopular president in a midterm election.
In 2014, Obama tried to prevent the U.S. Senate from going Republican. Despite the White House’s assurances that the president could energize his party’s base, pro-Democratic voters under age-45 didn’t materialize, while older, pro-GOP voters did (voters 45-64 and 65-and-over made up only 54% of 2012’s electorate but a whopping 67% two years later).
Finally, the 2016 election. Obama spent the last week of that contest campaigning in Florida, North Carolina and Ohio. Hillary Clinton lost all three states. On the night before the vote, Obama appeared alongside Mrs. Clinton at a rally in Philadelphia. That state also went red the following evening. Pennsylvania’s a good example of the Obama paradox. He received 2.864 million votes there in 2012 (though he did lose 55 of 67 counties). In 2016, despite the Democratic president’s very personal plea to elect Mrs. Clinton and thus protect his legacy, the Democratic ticket added only 62,000 more votes from the previous presidential election, while an additional 390,000 Pennsylvanians turned out to vote for the Republican who vowed to repeal and replace Obamacare.
The point: while an Obama endorsement could weigh heavily in South Carolina, maybe it’s an overrated commodity three days later when the Democratic race goes national in the 14-state, bicoastal “Super Tuesday” set of primaries and caucuses.
Protecting the brand. As members of an exclusive club, American presidents are a rare commodity. At national conventions, they speak at night and during prime time. They don’t do cable-television “hits.” If popular, they frequent swing states, not solid-blue territory, in October and early November.
The office has a mystique, and so do the men who hold the title. That means not making bad bets on losing propositions. And at this point in the Democratic contests, Barack Obama’s former vice president is at best a risky bet – one of four presidential hopefuls vying for control of the non-Sanders “sane lane.”
Why is Biden a risky bet? Because, unlike former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, he hasn’t overperformed in February’s votes. Unlike former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Biden doesn’t have the resources to spam March and April primary states with media buys.
The safer bet for Obama? Wait for an unsettled contest to run its course to Milwaukee, then volunteer to mediate the party’s search for a consensus nominee (if such a unicorn exists). By which time, Joe Biden might be an afterthought.
Being a vice president means drawing the lower card in the deck. You get a nice home at the Naval Observatory, but not the white mansion on Pennsylvania Avenue. You fly a smaller jet and attend partisan functions the president eschews. When you do something historic, you don’t always get the credit you deserve (Biden can attest to this, as he tries to remind voters that he forced Obama’s hand on same-sex marriage).
Vice presidents also serve at the pleasure of the president.
Which is Joe Biden’s problem at present: to the extent that Obama will endorse him, it will happen only when it pleases the former president to do so.