Joe Biden’s campaign is trying to figure out the best ways to deploy its most powerful surrogate, former President Obama, in the final stretch of the campaign.
Biden allies say the coronavirus pandemic has limited the possibilities for Obama, whose soaring rhetoric at political rallies could be aimed at turning out key Democratic constituencies to vote in a normal year.
In 2016, Obama hit the campaign trail for then-Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, stumping in battleground states including Ohio and Florida. While it wasn’t enough to get Clinton into the White House, the Biden campaign would love to have 44 out there.
Obama, who has spent time recently at his Martha’s Vineyard home, is not expected to travel for Biden in the coming weeks, sources around the former president say.
The sources say both the Obama and Biden teams are monitoring the pandemic on a daily basis to determine what if any travel they might do in the closing eight weeks of the presidential campaign.
The former president will participate in a drumbeat of outreach aimed at various parts of the Obama coalition, which helped catapult him to the White House.
Instead of the classic Obama big-ticket rallies, he will be delivering frequent messages to targeted audiences, as he has been doing in recent months, according to Democratic officials familiar with the strategy.
Obama adviser Eric Schultz would not comment on the specifics of the former president’s schedule. But he said Obama will be an active presence in the campaign.
“Campaigning in a pandemic has taken on new forms, but as he’s been doing since the spring, President Obama will be regularly making the case that our entire democracy is at stake on Nov. 3,” Schultz said.
“Our tactics are driven by a strategy of framing the stakes of the election, growing support for the Biden campaign and moving the needle with targeted constituencies,” he added. “This is an all-hands-on-deck moment.”
The coronavirus has been a frustration, since there’s nothing Democrats would want more than to get Obama on the road. But they also know the limitations of even the most sought-after surrogate.
“There’s not a lot he can do at this point,” said one Biden ally close to the campaign. “It’s not like he can do an economic roundtable, because this isn’t his campaign.”
Obama made a prime-time appearance from Philadelphia at the Democratic National Convention, using his speech to underline the stakes in the election. The speech was notable in representing a head-on attack by a former president on his successor.
In recent months, Obama has hosted virtual grassroots fundraisers and has appeared in a couple of videos for Biden, which he has helped to promote on his Twitter account.
On Tuesday, the campaign released a five-minute virtual conversation of Obama talking to Biden’s running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), and offering tips about his longtime partner.
“The main thing to know about Joe is that Joe has never lost his sense of why we do this, and we do it because of … for him, memories of his family back in Scranton and then the people of Delaware that he represented, the folks on the Amtrak train he met each and every day,” Obama tells Harris in their video chat.
“He is constantly aware that that is why we do this. His focus is going to be how’s that going to help those people who sent him there,” he adds.
A video out last month featuring Biden and Obama having a socially-distanced conversation about the campaign got nearly 25 million views in the first three days after it was published, campaign aides said.
Tuesday’s video featuring Obama and Harris has over 5 million views. Both are among the most successful video campaigns on each principal’s respective platforms.
The most viewed videos—other than ads— on Biden’s YouTube channel are in this order: the Obama endorsement of Biden, the Obama-Biden conversation video and the trailer of that video that the campaign put out earlier.
In the Harris video, Obama sought to humanize Biden, telling the California senator, and more importantly the viewing audience, about Biden’s favorite foods and why he constantly wears those sunglasses.
“Well, listen, ice cream is big. Pasta with red sauce, he can go deep on that. He really does like those aviator glasses, he knows he looks good in them,” Obama said.
Biden’s election is crucial to the Obama legacy. His first heir apparent, Clinton, won the popular vote but lost the Electoral College. Obama’s signature health care law barely survived; other policy matters have been obliterated or walked back by Trump, from his Iran nuclear deal to U.S. participation in the Paris climate accord.
The former president has been playing a big role in Biden’s campaign behind the scenes, arming Biden and his aides with advice on messaging and strategy. But he has been careful about not overshadowing Biden.
“I think he really wants to be out there making the case all the time, but he’s also very realistic about the times we’re living in while also giving Biden the room he needs to run his campaign,” said one source close to Obama.
Still, Democratic strategist Joel Payne — who served as the director of African American paid media for Clinton’s 2016 campaign — said Obama’s influence is like no other.
“In 2016 we used Barack and Michelle to do a lot of [get out the vote] down the stretch,” Payne said, adding that Obama is very popular with independent and moderate voters and even with some moderate Republicans, winning in places like Ohio and Florida.
“I think they have to continue what they’re doing to use Obama to contrast with Trump in terms of how Obama and Biden led for eight years and how Biden will continue the Obama legacy,” Payne said. “Obama has so much credibility when compared to Trump and the Biden campaign should and will continue to use that credibility to the advantage of the former vice president.”