LIBERAL UTOPIA: Obama wants ’16-year era of progressive rule’
Biden wouldn’t take the hint, and Barack Obama wouldn’t take “yes” for an answer.
It was the fall of 2015, Donald Trump was rocketing up in the polls, Hillary Clinton was already wilting, and there was Obama’s vice president, occupying national center stage in an awkward public display of grief and political vacillation. Biden’s son Beau had died at age 46 that May, and the vice president was coping, it seemed, by throwing himself into a very open exploration of running against Clinton.
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To Obama, this was a big, unwelcome problem. He had picked Biden for the ticket back in ’08 because he didn’t want him to run for president again, and besides, he honestly believed Biden would be crushed by a defeat he viewed as inevitable.
Still, this wasn’t personal for the president; it was business. Protecting his vulnerable accomplishments from the GOP wrecking ball and safeguarding his legacy have always been top priorities for Obama, and he had told friends as early as late 2014 that Clinton, for all her flaws, was “the only one” fit to succeed him. If Biden had come to him six months earlier—who knows? But it was much too late, and time to push Biden toward a graceful exit.
The choice was long understood by the president’s confidants. “My supposition always was that when the smoke cleared, he would be for Hillary,” David Axelrod, Obama’s campaign message guru and former White House adviser, told me. “It was just in the air, assumed.” Another former top Obama aide added, “After the 2014 midterms, when he could sense the end … it was like, ‘Who gives me the best chance to win?’”
One of the most important if hidden story lines of 2016 has been Obama’s effort to shape a race he’s not running in an anti-establishment environment he can no longer control. Over the past two years, he has worked quietly but inexorably on Clinton’s behalf, never mind the not-so-convincing line that he was waiting for the Democratic electorate to work its will. He has offered his former rival strategic advice, shared his top talent with her, bucked her up with cheery phone chats after her losses, even dispatched his top political adviser to calm the Clintons during their not-infrequent freakouts over the performance of their staff, according to one of the two dozen Democrats I interviewed for this story.
The affable traveling press secretary joined Clinton world as a lowly advance staffer on the 2008 campaign, gained Clinton’s trust at the State Department and was one of a few staffers who remained with her between Foggy Bottom and the 2016 campaign, serving as a one-man press team in her personal office. Image
Photo Gallery: The Clinton Entourage (Click to open) | Brooks Kraft for Politico Magazine
The one thing he wouldn’t do was endorse her before she cleared the field. And once, when things were darkest after Clinton’s devastating defeat to Senator Bernie Sanders in New Hampshire, Clinton’s staff urged him to break his pledge and rescue her—but his team refused, a senior Democrat told me.
Clinton’s view of Obama is more conflicted, people close to both politicians told me. She has repeatedly said, “I’m not running for Obama’s third term,” while taking pains to emphasize their differences on issues such as free trade and Syria. And she started the campaign committed to earning the nomination without his overt help.
But Clinton has been pulled closer to the president out of mutual self-interest and circumstance as the long primary season has worn on: Both Sanders’ unexpected success and Obama’s 80 percent-plus approval ratings with registered Democrats have forced the former secretary of state into a tighter embrace than she anticipated. Indeed, her campaign’s internal polling showed that one of the most effective attack lines against the socialist from Vermont was his 2011 remark that Obama’s moderate governing record was “weak” and a “disappointment” to progressives.
When he could sense the end, it was like, ‘Who gives me the best chance to win?’”
Clinton and Obama have something else in common: They both failed to anticipate seriously the rise of Trump. Early on, they were looking out for challenges from Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and Sanders on the left, and Florida Senator Marco Rubio as the most dangerous Republican in the field. But Trump’s ascent has only increased the urgency of the president’s last White House mission. “Mr. Trump will not be president,” Obama declared flatly back in February.
Obama’s ultimate goal in his final year has been strikingly ambitious, according to those I spoke with: not only blocking from office the birther who questioned his legitimacy as president, but preserving the Democratic Party’s hold over the presidency during an era of anti-establishment turbulence. Obama, always one to embrace a grand goal, talks in terms of creating “a 16-year era of progressive rule” to rival the achievements of Roosevelt-Truman and to reorient the country’s politics as a “Reagan of the left,” as one of his longtime White House advisers put it to me. – READ MORE