While Trump’s early assault on American political norms created a cottage industry of “Where’s Obama?” outcry on the left, Obama’s own view, perhaps a bit self-serving, was that the more he became the face of his party, the less of a chance it allowed for new faces to emerge. And once the Democrats took over the House and the enormous Democratic presidential field began to emerge, the demands for him to weigh in on everything receded. These days when his staff brings him ideas, issues, outrages that he might address, Obama always asks a simple question, “To what end?” More often than not, he stays mum.
And then Joe Biden announced he would run for president. Presidents have always struggled with how much to support their vice presidents. At one level, a Biden win would be a profound vindication, an almost direct restoration of the Obama administration. But Obama had already passed over Biden for Hillary Clinton in 2016. With Biden out of the race in 2020, the psychodrama of their relationship and the intrigue about Obama’s assessment of Biden could have been avoided. Obama’s commitment to non-interference would have seemed less fraught.
Biden, Obama told people close to him before Biden even entered the race, would have to “earn” it. There would be no endorsement. (Biden has said he never asked for one.) Besides, he liked to say, fighting it out in a tough primary is what made Obama a strong candidate for the general election.
Last year, Obama let it be widely known that he would not make his preference known or, in the phrase that his close advisers frequently use, “put his thumb on the scale.” It wasn’t just Biden who was disappointed. Holder was particularly wounded that his close friend wasn’t more encouraging of his own ambitions.