Barack Obama was almost enjoying himself.
He didn’t really mind the pandemic-imposed isolation from basically everyone other than his immediate family. And by September 2020 life on Martha’s Vineyard—where he and Michelle, the former first lady, had mostly stayed since leaving DC for roomier environs that spring—was tailor-made for an ex-president who had finally finished the first volume of the memoir he’d taken forever to write, who liked to golf, and who had, at long last, figured out the proper role for himself in his old partner Joe Biden’s quest to beat Donald Trump and perhaps save American democracy in the process.
This hadn’t been as intuitive as it might seem for the famously close pair, seeing as how Obama started the election cycle by essentially trying (and failing) to make sure Biden understood that he really didn’t need to run this time. He’d undertaken this act of light dissuasion because of what he perceived to be a mismatch between Biden and the political moment, but mostly out of concern for the former vice president. He’d then proceeded to monitor the Biden campaign but grown plenty interested in a procession of candidates not named Joe.
None of this was particularly amusing to the ex-VP, who, despite it all, still insisted to anyone who’d listen that the two were like brothers after their conspicuously tight eight years in office together. Then, as COVID-19 started bearing down, Obama had indeed begun to help Biden behind the scenes with some sub-rosa encouragement and covert political muscle-flexing—a combination that ended up being far more important than the public appreciated as Biden won the nomination.
And, more recently, the supposed retiree had begun supplementing his role as the Democratic nominee’s most important surrogate on the trail by also becoming one of his top private advisors and an important voice on the phone for Biden’s highest-ranking aides, too. For a few months now he’d been way more involved in the campaign than almost anyone outside of that tiny circle knew.
Unless things spiraled and it became absolutely necessary, he would step back and let Biden take the lead, as was appropriate.
Still, the fall wasn’t looking particularly easy to navigate, between the virus’s rampage, the ongoing racial reckoning across the country, and, as of late, the growing likelihood that the sitting president might not accept the result of the election if he lost in November. Few people in Biden’s inner circle doubted that a democratic crisis might be brewing, and so they hardly needed Obama’s repeated warnings to take the prospect seriously.
Yet watching from afar, and after discussing the matter repeatedly with friends and allies between campaign rallies and on calls from the Vineyard, the ex-president determined he still needed his own real plan for what to do if Trump refused to admit defeat or in case he sowed doubt about the result if the vote took longer to count than usual, thanks to the increased popularity of mail-in ballots.
So, that month, Obama convened a small group of his own advisors to map out his plan for the final stretch of campaign season. They talked through some of these nightmare scenarios and determined that the ex-president—who’d insisted on respecting the polite conventions of the post-presidency even as Trump spent four years pulverizing those kinds of norms, and even as some liberals pined for some sort of implausible Obama-as-savior plot—should be as active as ever for Biden on the trail but again refrain from saying much publicly should one of those dangerous story lines come to pass. Unless things spiraled and it became absolutely necessary, he would step back and let Biden take the lead, as was appropriate.
Further, Obama determined that after the polls opened he shouldn’t talk to Biden at all until the result was official, since the last thing either of them wanted was Trump accusing them of some fantastical, corrupt, coordinated scheme to steal the election, and also because Obama wanted to be as cautious as possible to avoid any premature celebration at a delicate moment.
They could handle the distance. They’d been talking plenty recently, but “Joe as Nominee, Barack as Backstage Guru” was really only the latest chapter in the complicated saga of the relationship between the forty-fourth and would-be-forty-sixth presidents. Plus, both of them wished to project the message that a Biden win would mean a return to a normal democratic order. You get congratulated only when you win, period.
Biden understood the outlines of this plan. He’d welcomed Obama’s help during the campaign, of course—anything from his longtime friend and ally who remained one of the world’s most popular political figures could be useful. But Biden had also slightly surprised some of his other friends with his sensitivity to the idea that his victory would represent a restoration of the Obama years, considering how explicitly he’d run on a return to normalcy, and on his tenure as VP, during the primary especially.
Either way, Obama’s logistics were hardly top of mind for Biden in the final days of his campaign. It was nearly half a century after he got to Washington, over three decades after he’d started running for president, a dozen years since his public profile had been transformed by the partnership in the White House, and just months since he had correctly gauged the country’s exhaustion, despite the supposedly savvy crowd’s insistence that he was hopelessly out of touch. And this was it.
In other words, Biden had other things to think about on election night. At home in Wilmington, Delaware, surrounded by his family and his longtime political strategist Mike Donilon, he sat nervously, doing what he always did as he waited for results. He knew he had lawyers on standby in DC monitoring any irregularities and Trump’s pronouncements that he couldn’t possibly lose, so Biden stuck to flipping between NBC and CNN and working his phone. He called his friend Doug Jones to console him ten minutes after the Alabama senator lost his reelection bid. He checked in with old buddies and allies from past campaigns and past lives who were peppered around swing states like Michigan and Florida. And he stayed away from the one number he knew he couldn’t dial.
Biden had entered the night expecting to win but knowing it could take a while. He only started to exhale when Fox News, of all networks, called Arizona, usually a Republican state, for him after 11:00 p.m. eastern time. Still, there went his plan to victoriously address the nation on Tuesday night. It was all trending in the right direction, but it clearly wasn’t going to be official quite yet. He stuck to his calls as his top advisors across town in Wilmington checked in with his analytics team in Philadelphia, which kept crunching its numbers. Biden maintained his pace as Wednesday approached. Florida and North Carolina were gone, but even GOP-friendly Georgia was still in play, and it looked like Pennsylvania—his childhood home—might push him over the edge when more votes came in, whenever that was going to be.
Around 1:00 a.m. the candidate called Bob Casey, the state’s Democratic senator, to compare notes and vent a bit about the slow process. Biden was doing his best to stay calm. Casey told him it sure looked like he was going to win the state eventually, but that it still might take a while longer. And that was before Trump popped up in the White House trying to declare victory.
Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday proceeded the same way, Biden mostly parked in front of his television, phone in hand, as ballots trickled in across the country and the president veered deeper into the realm of conspiracy to insist that he’d won. Biden’s staffers were burning through their phones as much as he was, scavenging for on-the-ground intel from Pennsylvania, in particular, from Casey and other Keystone State friends, allies, and acquaintances who were themselves looking for clues about the timing of the ballot-tallying. Or, really, about anything that might help.
It would determine not just his old partner’s next four years and arguably the country’s next epoch, but also how he—and his era—would be remembered.
The circumstances could hardly have been more different, but it was the second time in five years that Biden, in a period of most intense political pressure, knew he couldn’t call Obama. This time, at least, was more hopeful. In 2015, as the then VP agonized over whether he should launch a presidential campaign after months of painful consideration, he knew Obama didn’t want him to run, and that the president had pushed Hillary Clinton to run instead, so that there was no more discussion to be had about it. It had taken them years to get over that experience, and people around them still didn’t like to talk about that year, the same one Biden’s son Beau died. Now it was self-imposed protocol stopping them from talking—yet another obstacle they’d set for themselves. That didn’t make it any less uncomfortable.
Not for Biden, and not for Obama.
The former president, too, was watching closely, dispatching his political and communications advisor Eric Schultz and some other aides to keep in constant touch with Biden’s political side for rolling updates on vote counts and expectations in Georgia and Pennsylvania counties. As the days seemed to lengthen, Schultz occasionally reminded Biden’s campaign manager Jen O’Malley Dillon and confidants like veteran strategist Anita Dunn, “My boss is a little anxious to know what’s going on.” Nerves still jangling late into the week, he offered to have Obama call Biden if it would be useful while they all waited, but neither O’Malley Dillon nor Dunn thought it was necessary to deviate from the plan quite yet.
Still, twice between Tuesday and Saturday Obama called O’Malley Dillon directly for the latest updates, uneasy with the prospect of relying on cable news, which he hated, to keep him posted on the agonizingly slow vote-counting. It would determine not just his old partner’s next four years and arguably the country’s next epoch, but also how he—and his era—would be remembered. He wouldn’t put it like this, but it was hard to ignore that vast swaths of his own legacy were hanging in the balance.
Biden was out on the dock behind his home with his wife, Jill, on the afternoon of Saturday, November 7, trying to find peace overlooking the lake, when it happened. He was ambushed by a pack of adult children and young adult grandchildren screaming, “We won!”
Only then did the phone ring, Obama on the line.
Biden kept Obama on the phone throughout the transition, though the pace of calls slowed from its general election peak as the president-elect built his cabinet from home in Wilmington and the ex-POTUS first published a volume of presidential memoirs, then went on a publicity tour, then retreated to Hawaii for his annual family trip in December. The new president was eager for advice from his old friend—one of the few people on earth who could give it to him—but only to a point.
He’d quickly gotten tired of the commentary about how he was hiring a ton of old Obama team members for his own administration, though he knew it was inevitable to some degree. The process was always destined to be politically delicate, read as a signal of continuity or breakaway from his old boss, just as George W. Bush’s selections had been read closely as indications of his loyalty to his father’s administration. Bush and Biden both argued—to little avail—that it was only natural to bring on people with senior government experience, no matter who controlled the last White House of their party. (The younger Bush ended up hiring an array of his dad’s former aides, but also some officials with whom he’d famously clashed, like Donald Rumsfeld.)
What even Obama didn’t know was that Biden had been bristling slightly when answering the constant questions about his old boss’s influence. He’d been wary of the impression that Obama had helped him win any more than the ex-president would have for any Democrat in his position, and he’d loved hearing—then repeating—the news when he first raised more money as the nominee than Obama had during a comparable time period in 2008. When, as president-elect, he then encouraged his teams to aim to confirm cabinet officials and judges more quickly than Obama had, he insisted it was a matter of the urgency of the moment, and not competitiveness. Still, within his inner circle it was noted with arched eyebrows when, during the transition, the former president referred to Biden and his new vice president, Kamala Harris, as having “the ability to pick up where we left off and keep on going.”
The reality was that Obama himself had been careful to tread relatively lightly as Biden built his team, not wanting to be seen as cynically or inappropriately seeding his friends throughout the administration.
Biden saw no inconsistencies in the fact that, at the same time as he held these feelings, he still considered plenty about the Obama years to be worthy of intense study, admiration, and imitation. Biden in fact set out twelve characteristics he wanted in the senior team members who would helm his administration, largely focused on their experience, abilities, and ideological agreement with him, and looking especially for uncontroversial bureaucrats who could fulfill his initial pledge of a return to normalcy with their focus on government experience and willingness to collaborate rather than, in most cases, idiosyncratic subject-matter expertise. He nonetheless ended up with a roster that looked like it was pulled from an Obama administration yearbook.
Before December was out, senior Obama officials or allies had agreed to become Biden’s Treasury secretary, Veterans Affairs secretary, and COVID response czar. The list grew as the transition did, too: Obama’s old agriculture secretary would be reprising his role, the former surgeon general would take back his own old job, Obama’s deputy secretary of Homeland Security would assume the top job in that department, and Obama’s friend and national security advisor Susan Rice would become the director of Biden’s Domestic Policy Council.
An old Senate and administration aide to Obama took over at the Agency for International Development. Biden’s climate advisor was an Obama alum, as was his climate envoy, as were his legislative affairs director, his choice for Office of Management and Budget director, and his White House counsel. His National Economic Council director was, as well, and so was the Council of Economic Advisers chair. Even Biden’s White House press secretary, the face of his administration, would be Obama’s former communications director Jen Psaki.
The tone of DC chatter about the crossover struck Biden as a bit overheated, since all those people had worked for him, too—he was the VP!— and the lists describing the overlap often also tended to include his new chief of staff, secretary of state, national security advisor, and director of national intelligence. All of them had indeed worked for Obama, but each was a Bidenite first.
The reality was that Obama himself had been careful to tread relatively lightly as Biden built his team, not wanting to be seen as cynically or inappropriately seeding his friends throughout the administration, even as he did want the best for his close allies and advocated for some of them. (He was especially gratified to learn of Rice’s job, the hiring of former senior White House aide and Obama Foundation COO Yohannes Abraham to be the National Security Council’s chief of staff, and the choice of Wally Adeyemo—another former White House advisor who’d become the Obama Foundation president—as deputy Treasury secretary.)
But by the final stretch of the transition in early 2021, once he’d rallied for a pair of Democrats still running for the Senate in Georgia, Obama figured his job was done and he could more or less tune out for a while as Biden took over from Trump. He unplugged ahead of those Senate elections, which were set for January 5.
Excerpted from The Long Alliance: The Imperfect Union of Joe Biden and Barack Obama by Gabriel Debenedetti. Copyright © 2022. Available from Henry Holt and Co., an imprint of Macmillan.
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