It begins: 2020 Democratic hopefuls meeting with Obama to kiss the ring

Well, naturally. It’s the obvious first step to landing a guest shot on his eventual Netflix talk show, “Let You Be Clear.”

Seriously, is it advice they want, as Politico suggests, or are they just trying to keep him neutral in the primaries? If Biden runs, and it seems like he wants to, he’ll put heavy pressure on O to turbo-charge his candidacy with an endorsement. It’s unthinkable that Obama would endorse anyone else but maaaaybe he can be persuaded to sit out the primaries altogether if enough of Biden’s competition makes nice with him now.

Can you imagine that betrayal, though? First Obama leans on Biden to stand aside for Hillary in 2016, then he decides to wash his hands of the primary when he finally does run? Hoo boy.

Barack Obama has in recent months met with at least nine prospective 2020 Democratic presidential candidates, including Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden and Deval Patrick, pulling them in for one-on-one sessions at his Washington office…

Obama and Biden remain personally close and speak by phone, and the former vice president also came by for an in-person meeting in January. He’s waiting until after the midterms to make a decision on 2020, though many people see him as leaning toward it. The 2020 race and what Biden’s going to do haven’t come up in those discussions, though, with Obama waiting on his friend to make a decision, according to people who have been briefed on their conversations…

Many of the conversations have circled around Obama holding forth about how much Democrats should be heading into the midterms talking about the investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 election versus focusing on kitchen table issues. Don’t chase the shiny objects, he tells them. Don’t hyperventilate over the flash of any tweet. Think about what’s going to stick in the long term.

Good advice, unless the economy keeps rolling. In that case it’ll be kitchen-sink time, with progressives looking under rocks for the mythical “pee tape” in hopes of finding a deus ex machina. It’s not just big names like Sanders and Warren who have come to kiss the ring, reportedly: No-chancers like Mitch Landrieu and Jason Kander have swung by too, likely in the reasonable belief that there’s no downside to having a friend in a former president who remains popular within his party. With his endless connections to bundlers and lefty advisors, he’s the perfect buddy to have if you’re eyeing a Senate run in the future or hoping to have a good word put in for you in the eventual hunt for a VP nominee.

If nothing else, it’s worth doing for pure arms-race reasons. If you’re thinking of running for president and you know the other guys are checking a certain box, you’d better hurry and check that box too! The last thing you want is to be seen as having snubbed Obama and have him quietly hold it against you.

One curveball mentioned in the piece is that Deval Patrick has also been by to see him. Obama and Patrick are friends and both O himself and his inner circle of advisors reportedly began nudging Patrick last year to run for president. What does that do to Obama’s endorsement calculations? Politico claims that he isn’t expected to endorse anyone in the primaries but it’s hard to believe he’d stay neutral if either Biden or Patrick got in. (If they both got in, maybe that would compel his neutrality.) Refusing to endorse his own VP in particular would be seen by some as a brutal snub.

But endorsing Biden comes with risks. An obvious one is that him landing O’s endorsement and then losing the nomination would leave Obama looking like a man without any real political influence anymore. And, win or lose, if Obama’s convinced that the party is drifting left towards a Sanders-Warren brand of socialism, backing Uncle Joe could position him inadvertently as a standard-bearer for an ideology that’s out of vogue, the last thing O ever wants to be. He’d be the last neoliberal standing, swimming against the leftist tide just as the Clintons were the last centrists standing swimming against Obama’s neoliberal tide. Look what’s become of them.

The real mystery is how much campaigning O will do for the eventual nominee. He’s laid low during Trump’s first 17 months knowing that he’s a rallying point for the right: The more he’s out there knocking POTUS, the more Obama-haters may put aside their own issues with Trump and circle the wagons around him. That same dynamic will be at work in 2020 — and unlike 2016, there’s at least a chance that the Democratic nominee won’t be someone whom the right viscerally detests. If we end up with someone like Biden or even Bernie who’s a bit less offensive to Republicans, would O risk spoiling that by heading out onto the trail or would he bite his lip and continue to stay away? You know it’s killing him not to be able to throw a punch at Trump after being jabbed by him repeatedly on Twitter.