What Biden and Obama’s socially distanced chat tells us about the Democrat campaign
So now we know how the last US president will campaign against the current president to help the would-be next president.
Barack Obama may prove to be important for the Democrats in this campaign. A video of the one-time president having a “socially distanced conversation” with his former deputy Joe Biden, released by the Democratic campaign on social media last week, is a reminder of the poise and calm of the 44th president, in contrast with the bombast and unpredictability of the 45th. Which, of course, is the point. Obama’s unflappable demeanour and embodiment of a serious-minded era in the White House, make him a potentially formidable campaigning asset.
Even some Americans who were unenthusiastic about Obama seem to miss him. His post-2016 approval ratings have been high. An average of YouGov polling on Obama between February 2019 and February 2020 put him on 55 per cent approval, comfortably outstripping both Biden and Trump.
This is the first time Biden and Obama have been seen together since Biden became the presumptive Democratic candidate and they are making the most of it. “You and I,” Obama utters repeatedly during the 15-minute film, reinforcing their long association. Bringing the two back together, talking about their period in office, is an unambiguous pitch to voters: remember what you had before all this mess? Well, you can have it again (sort of).
The format is a winner because the two men have an easy affinity that dates from their early days on the stump in 2008. The then Delaware senator had been Obama’s competitor for the Democratic nomination, though he pulled out after the Iowa caucus as support pooled around Obama and Hillary Clinton.
When Obama secured the nomination and chose Biden as his running mate, it was a harmonious relationship not just between the two men but their families too. “Barack and Joe had a natural rapport, both of them able to slide with ease between the seriousness of their work and the lightness of family,” writes Michelle Obama in her autobiography.
The closeness of the two families is referenced in the video, as they talk about the involvement in Black Lives Matter of the Obama children Malia and Sasha, and Biden’s grandkids. “Best friends,” beams Biden (the children have been close since the 2008 campaign).
Showcasing this enduring friendship could itself be seen as a subtle reproach to Donald Trump. The White House has been mired in recrimination since 2016, with more than 400 political appointees having either resigned or been sacked.
It’s part of what appears to be the central effort of the video, and the campaign: to highlight in Biden the “presidential” qualities that Trump lacks.
Obama and Biden discuss being persuasive, the value of experience and being willing to listen to others.
They shake their heads in disbelief at Trump’s attempt to make the Supreme Court overturn Obamacare “in the middle of a pandemic” and express astonishment about his refusal to take responsibility for government failures.
Biden talks, Obama listens, then Obama talks and Biden listens: it’s saying something when even showing you can conduct a respectful conversation feels like an indictment of your opponent.
Strategists hope some of Obama’s magic and his popularity among black and voters will rub off on Biden (black voters turned out less strongly for Clinton in 2016 than for Obama), but the film also shows the ways in which Biden differs from his one-time boss. He is a little hard to follow sometimes. But he is also more of an everyman than the academic Obama, the former president of the Harvard Law Review.
Biden’s campaign believes that his empathy is one of his biggest assets.
“I don’t understand his inability to get a sense of what people are going through. He just can’t relate in any way,” he says of Trump.
“It’s the reason why I wanted you to be my vice president and the reason why you were so effective: it all starts with being able to relate,” replies Obama.
This is a pitch mainly on values and character, but the policy areas under discussion are also telling. The main issues are coronavirus (Trump’s approval ratings have taken a hit over his handling of it), the need for a fairer economy, healthcare and racial discrimination. The pair talk about how important it is to listen to the experts and how the president has a responsibility to drive down the infection rate. Biden talks about supporting small and minority businesses, and pledges to “build back better”, making the economy and society fairer. Biden discusses his hope of building on their flagship policy the Affordable
Care Act which has ensured 20 million Americans have health insurance who didn’t before and is now under attack from Trump.
And they talk about race. They highlight their work bringing young members of Black Lives Matter together in a “single conversation” with police chiefs and academics on a federal task force to tackle police discrimination (though perhaps in a nod to the limitations of their own achievements, describe the push against discrimination as a “process”). They discuss the movement across the country, among people in all parts of society, and the opportunity it creates to implement concrete reforms. They talk of “partnership” with the protesters.
The bid to associate themselves with Black Lives Matter and the pitch for a fairer economy are aimed at younger voters, with whom Biden, the centrist, establishment candidate, has struggled to connect.
Above all, though, Obama praises his one-time vice president for his “basic decency”, the unifying theme across all constituencies that they hope will resonate with weary electors.
It’s a simple pitch but potentially effective and sets the course for the battle ahead.