Obamas share spotlight with Biden to aid White House campaign

When Barack Obama named Joe Biden as his running mate in 2008, he made a rare verbal mis-step: “Let me introduce to you the next president — the next vice-president — of the United States of America,” he told the roaring crowd.

Mr Obama will not need to correct himself again on Wednesday night when he delivers a speech at the virtual Democratic National Convention, one day before Mr Biden officially accepts his party’s nomination for president.

The former president did not publicly support Mr Biden’s candidacy until after the other candidates had left the primary race, but since then he and his wife Michelle have backed the former vice-president with gusto.

Mr Obama has recorded a series of campaign videos with Mr Biden and last month used a eulogy for the late civil-rights icon John Lewis to lacerate Donald Trump. Mrs Obama was the standout speaker at the party’s convention on Monday night.

The full-throated support from the Obamas — who have higher approval ratings than Mr Biden — has obvious benefits for the Democratic bid to recapture the White House. However, it also raises questions about the difficulty of transplanting political popularity from one person to another.

Many political analysts said their endorsement could help Mr Biden reassemble the so-called “Obama coalition” of black voters and moderate white voters living in America’s suburbs, many of whom did not cast their ballots for Hillary Clinton in 2016.

“If you are going to be trotting out surrogates on the Democratic side, there really is not anybody better than Barack Obama,” said Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “Bill Clinton used to be in that role, but that time is over. It’s Obama now.”

Matt Bennett, founder of the Democratic think-tank Third Way, agreed, saying the Obamas would have a “huge impact” on exciting Democratic voters ahead of November’s US elections.

“They are universally, enormously popular, and they are exciting for people to hear from,” he said. He added that Mrs Obama — whose 2018 book, Becoming, set a record for the bestselling memoir — arguably had even more political capital than her husband.

Line chart showing how Trump and Biden are doing in the US national polls

Fifty-seven per cent of Americans have a positive opinion of Mrs Obama, compared with 55 per cent for Mr Obama and 40 per cent for Mr Biden, according to pollster YouGov.

“If you are a congressional candidate, and you have an event with Michelle Obama, there is literally no one you would rather have,” Mr Bennett said. “I don’t know what is above A-list, but she is on it.”

Mrs Obama’s impassioned address to the virtual convention on Monday night accused Donald Trump of a “total lack of empathy”.

The former first lady said she was “one of a handful of people living today who have seen first-hand the immense weight and awesome power of the presidency”, adding that Mr Trump had spread “chaos and division” at a time when Americans were looking for “leadership and consolation” during the coronavirus pandemic.

Mr Trump responded on Twitter, saying he would not be in the “beautiful White House” were it not for the failures of the Obama presidency, adding: “Biden was merely an afterthought”.

But most Democrats were unfazed by the president’s criticisms, arguing that voters who share his distaste for the Obamas are unlikely to vote for Mr Biden in the first place.

Antjuan Seawright, a Democratic consultant in South Carolina, said the Obamas were in a unique position to encourage Democratic and independent voters to back Mr Biden in November.

“I think they can make that case, and create a different level of urgency because they have already [made] history,” he said. “I appreciate them getting off the sidelines, putting their jerseys back on and getting on the field again.”

Despite Mr Obama and Mr Biden’s oft observed “bromance” — both men speak regularly of the friendship they forged in the White House — the former president was not always supportive of his vice-president’s political ambitions.

As Mr Obama sought re-election in 2012, it was widely reported that he considered replacing Mr Biden as his running mate with Mrs Clinton, then secretary of state. Mr Biden remained on the ticket but, in 2016, Mr Obama repeatedly discouraged his number-two — who had failed to gain traction as a presidential candidate in both 1988 and 2008 — from seeking the Democratic party’s nomination.

Mr Obama instead threw his support behind Mrs Clinton — a move that analysts point out did not give her a winning edge over Mr Trump at the ballot box, underscoring how elections are ultimately won and lost by candidates rather than their surrogates.

Democrats nevertheless say Mr Obama and Mr Biden enjoy a healthier relationship than any other former president and vice-president in recent history.

“There is no drama like there was with [Al] Gore and [Bill] Clinton or [George HW] Bush and [Ronald] Reagan,” said Kenneth Baer, a former Obama administration official who worked on Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign, which he lost to George W Bush.

“Biden is very up front about his relationship with Obama, it is close and he is proud of it, he talks about it all of the time,” Mr Baer added. “As someone who worked on the Gore campaign, I can tell you that was not the case. It was a torture topic, and there is none of that this time.”

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