With Joe Biden now the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, there is one president Americans will be seeing a lot more of in the months ahead—and his name is not Donald Trump.
In the three years since he vacated the White House, Barack Obama has largely kept to himself. The former commander in chief is following the golden-rule of his own predecessor, George W. Bush: let your successor govern the way he or she wants to govern, and don’t constantly criticise those decisions or be a nuisance from the sidelines. Obama is keeping to that script, with some notable exceptions—his defence of the Affordable Care Act, his signature domestic legislative achievement, and his 2017 condemnation of Trump’s tone-deafness during the violence in Charlottesville, when a white nationalist killed a protester with his car. Other than those two instances and a few months of campaigning on behalf of Democrats during the 2018 midterm elections, Obama has been perfectly happy maintaining a low profile and working on his memoirs.
With the 2020 general election season now in its infancy, Obama’s passivity will soon be replaced with a kind of passionate intensity Americans haven’t seen since his own re-election campaign against GOP nominee Mitt Romney nine years prior. Democrats across the country can’t wait for their ‘super surrogate’ to start campaigning for Joe Biden, who after all was his top lieutenant for eight years. Obama, too, appears to be thirsting for action; he has reportedly held calls with some of the Democratic candidates, during which they brainstormed about how to increase the odds of a Democratic Party victory in November. There is even some speculation that Obama may have helped consolidate the moderate wing of the party around Biden’s candidacy—a development that, if true, would only confirm in the minds of Bernie Sanders’s supporters that the fix was in all along. While the former president didn’t overtly endorse a candidate during the primary, one could safely assume that Biden, his brother in all but blood, was at the very top of his list.
Obama would be the most effective surrogate on the stump for Biden in the summer and fall. He is a revered figure for many Americans and the face of what America used to be before Donald Trump violently shook the country out of its normalcy. Whether you agreed with his policies or not, there is no dispute that Obama represented the pinnacle of grace and civility, somebody who deeply respected the office of the presidency, followed the rules and mores Americans expect of their president, and presided over an economic recovery after a years-long recession. Of course, Obama is also the logical choice for Democrats and the Biden campaign due to his unparalleled popularity within the party. No other Democrat, not Bill or Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, or Nancy Pelosi, has the base of support, bandwidth, or gravitas to excite the legion of Democrats nationwide.
At this stage in the race, Biden could use all the help he can get. While Trump is giving daily news briefings to millions of Americans and grossly exaggerating (if not outright lying) abut his perceived accomplishments, the coronavirus is preventing Biden from hobnobbing with big money donors, giving town halls, shaking hands with ordinary Americans, holding rallies, and doing everything a presidential candidate would normally do in any other election year. He is essentially trapped in the basement of his Delaware home, using a live feed to keep himself in the national conversation and counting on several Democratic Party super PACs to spread the good word on the airwaves. Trump’s people are naturally doing the same exact thing, buying $18 million of television and radio time in the crucial battleground state of Florida. Nobody knows how long the virus will keep Biden in his cave.
Obama is a gifted campaigner, but he doesn’t necessarily want to steal the limelight either. He has told many of his former advisers over the years that a fresh crop of young, inspiring Democratic politicians must come out of the woodwork to carry the message and transition the party into a new era. Obama doesn’t want to be put in the situation of being the crutch on which the Democratic Party always leans on or a superhero called upon again and again whenever the party is having trouble fundraising money or exciting their supporters. Obama is no Bill Clinton—he has no desire to be the centre of attention decades after he left the White House.
The 2020 election, however, is different. So many Democrats view the Trump v. Biden matchup as the most important election cycle in American political history. Obama can’t simply pretend 2020 is just an ordinary year and opt not to participate.
Let’s be honest: pitching in for Joe Biden is also personal for Obama. Trump has spent the previous four years beating Obama over the head on practically every issue imaginable. He has accused Obama of illegally spying on his campaign in 2016 despite a dearth of evidence that such spying actually occurred. He has attempted to destroy Obamacare and essentially killed the Iran nuclear agreement, Obama’s prized diplomatic accomplishment. And there is bad blood between the two men. Obama hasn’t forgotten about Trump’s high-profile role in the birther movement, a fringe, xenophobic campaign that sought to delegitimise the America’s first African American president by stoking doubts about where he was born. It was Trump who proudly wore birtherism on his sleeve to elevate his own stature in conservative circles, only to throw it away once the theory went out of fashion.
For Barack Obama, contributing to Trump’s political downfall and enabling victory for his former vice president’s would be the ultimate act of retribution—the final hammer in a decade-old rivalry.