What Obama is Saying in Private About the Democratic Primary

FILE – In this Dec. 5, 2017, file photo, former President Barack Obama address the participants at a summit on climate change in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast, File)

Democratic leaders, whose two primary concerns these days are trying to keep Donald Trump in check and maintaining their own party’s unity, have had ample reason for concern in the first seven weeks of 2020. There was the end of Trump’s impeachment trial, the Iowa caucus fiasco, and the growing certainty that their intensifying presidential nominating contest will likely drag on for months. One Thursday afternoon in late January, they briefly had another worry to contend with: the entire party losing its mind after a Fox Business reporter tweeted a “SCOOP” that Barack Obama “is growing increasingly anxious about @BernieSanders rise in the national polls & where the avowed socialist would take the country; he is considering a public statement addressing it.” The report was quickly rubbished by those close to the former president — such an action would obviously be painfully out of character for the studiously quiet Obama, who has always been judicious about weighing in on Democratic primary fights, and whose defining post-presidential quality has been distance. But the tweet and ensuing hysteria did renew an unsettling round of questions among candidates, elected officials, campaign strategists, voters, and donors: Well, what does Obama think of all of this?

The truth of Obama’s silence on the 2020 primary is that it’s not just about his obvious wish to stay out of the spotlight, but it also reflects a choreographed strategy. With the race looking more and more likely to grow bitter and messy, and maybe even wind up in a contested convention, the former president and those around him are increasingly sure he will need to play a prominent role in bringing the party back together and calming its tensions later this summer, including perhaps in Milwaukee, where the party’s meeting is scheduled to be held in July. So he is committed to not allowing his personal thoughts to dribble out in the meantime, directly or via leaks, conscious of how any sense that he’s taking sides in intraparty disputes could rock the primary in the short run and potentially undermine his ability to play this larger role in the months ahead. “He says one sentence about being woke at some conference, and the Twitterverse freaks out,” recalled one of his friends, referring to the former president’s comments at an Obama Foundation meeting in Chicago that set off a firestorm. He and his advisors “are very aware [of the effect of] one word that Barack Obama says.” And he’s being careful to ensure he can be seen as an honest broker in June and July — a potentially necessary designation given both his status as the party’s most popular figure and the real possibility that Sanders, or another candidate, could enter the summer with a plurality of the delegates needed for the nomination but not an outright victory. “Obama is going to look at the [delegate math to determine] the outcome. If the math brings someone [to the nomination], he’ll back it in full,” one person who still speaks with the former president told me recently. “His biggest dilemma is if Bernie is at 35-40 [percent of the delegates], and no one else is [at] 20. Does he say, ‘You have to go with who won [a plurality of] the delegates, and who looks to be the true front-runner?’”

But Obama is hardly the only Democrat sweating that particular possibility, especially with Michael Bloomberg — who some in Obama’s orbit favor but many regard warily — poised to swoop in on the process in March. Sorting out that confusion might be the most complicated scenario for Obama, the person added. The reality might be more simple: “It’s not gonna happen before the convention, [but] he’s gonna be all-in for Bernie if he’s the nominee.”

Watching from afar, Obama is for now sticking to the plan he set out at the beginning of the election cycle. He’s been going out of his way to remind worried Democrats who come to him that his 2008 primary was long and brutal, and still ended in his election. And his purposeful distance from the race isn’t all about managing party factions in the short-term. He speaks with fewer people regularly about politics than ever — he rarely even talks with Tom Perez, the former Labor secretary he helped install as Democratic National Committee chairman, for example — in part because he is less interested in the back-and-forth than he was even as president, when his lack of patience for political horse-trading and debating was notorious.

But this isn’t just about distance from the action, either — it’s also because he doesn’t want to provide Trump with a political foil, and because he wants a new generation of Democratic leaders to step up, and to stop relying on him. (He’s only gotten directly involved in one domestic political fight since Trump was elected, working behind the scenes to help save the Affordable Care Act.) While he’s following the race by reading newspaper reports, he’s been disengaged with its day-to-day dynamics, sure that he’ll have to catch up on them later this year anyway — he doesn’t even make a point of watching the debates. Obama has insisted that he’ll support Democrats’ nominee, no matter who it is, publicly saying so as recently as November. Privately, he reminds friends that the views of the candidate — even if it’s Sanders, whose democratic socialism is a significant break from Obama’s technocratic progressivism — will more closely reflect not just his values, but Democrats’ and the nations’, than Trump’s. He often adds that he expects to campaign often and loudly in the general election, even if he has to step in to try and unite liberals, moderates, and progressives beforehand.

Until then, Obama has reminded those who ask, he won’t speak up unless he feels compelled to make any specific, candidate-neutral points to ensure Democrats win in November. “There is no way Barack Obama is intervening, unless something very strange happens,” said a friend who’s heard his reasoning. “He just doesn’t have that in him.” Even if he felt like speaking out against Sanders specifically, he knows such a statement would likely ruin his standing on the left and almost certainly divide the party just when it needs uniting, according to multiple people who’ve spoken with him about the race. Obama and those around him “have a very clear understanding that if they put their finger on the scale right now, all of a sudden half of the Democratic Party hates him,” an influential Democrat who keeps in touch with Obama explained.

Anyway, Obama’s team has made clear to Sanders’ inner circle that the former president has no intention of getting involved in the primary. And people from both camps who are familiar with the discussions say the pair has also spoken directly during this election cycle. Top Sanders advisors accordingly viewed the Fox Business report as a case of rogue former Obama aides speaking wishfully and out of turn, rather than a preview of things to come. (The Democratic establishment backlash will be fierce if Sanders starts running away with the nomination, they’re sure, but it won’t come from the ex-president.) The Sanders camp also takes reassurance from 2016, when Obama easily could have spoken up for Hillary Clinton — his chosen candidate — during the rougher parts of the primary, but was careful not to. When Obama finally spoke with Sanders about his impending exit from the race in the summer of 2016, according to multiple Democrats briefed on the private conversation, it was only after it was clear that Clinton would be the nominee. He talked about delegate math and thanked Sanders for bringing new voters into the process but did not share any judgments on the candidate’s ideology or offer his own differing views of the party’s shape or the electorate’s preferences.

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Source: New York Magazine