For weeks the media and democrats were anticipating the return of former president Barack Obama to the 2020 campaign trail. The hope was that he could bring much needed excitement and intensity to Joe Biden’s lagging and lackluster campaign and make another attempt to salvage his own legacy which President Trump has systematically dismantled over the last four years. Obama campaigned for Hillary Clinton in 2016, but the results were labeled disappointing and insincere. Some analysts went as far to suggest Obama’s hesitancy to campaign for Hillary cost her the election. Why bring Obama back?
Last week American voters finally saw the return of Obama to the campaign trail. It was his first in-person appearance on Biden’s behalf, and it could not have come too soon. Two days earlier Biden was quickly pulled off the campaign trail under the guise of preparing for the final presidential debate on October 22nd. It was a convenient and apposite excuse to give him, his campaign and his family time to formulate a response to the expansive allegations of Biden family corruption. A compelling amount of information was revealed over the last ten days linking the Bidens to foreign business entanglements and using the former vice president’s office to enrich himself and his family.
Even with many key state polls tightening as the election draws closer, Biden’s intensity among voters does not match that of President Trump. It never has throughout the entirety of this election. The fear among democrats and democratic voters is a repeat of 2016. Hillary’s support among Blacks and Latinos was particularly disappointing. She under-performed in many demographic categories, including in some not anticipated like college-educated women.
This time the Democrats say they are prepared. But if that were truly the case then why bring back a former president who, in truth, is more intent on preserving his own legacy than helping another democrat start one. If Biden and his team were confident with their current lead they would not need, and would certainly not use, the one person that President Trump successfully used to define and defeat his opponent in 2016. By claiming Hillary was just an extension of Obama that would result in another four years of “failed” policies, Trump was able to link the two and defeat Clinton. This is the same situation now. It is a dangerous and calculated risk where the end result may not materialize into the expected reward.
There are four fundamental flaws in using Obama as Biden’s campaigner-in-chief. First, Obama is not really campaigning for Biden, but rather he is protesting against Trump. This approach might help Obama distinguish his legacy from Trump’s. But it does nothing to bolster Biden with key demographic groups, particularly the Black vote, nor help his overall bid for the presidency.
Second, during the final presidential debate the president was able to force Biden to explain his controversial policy record while working for Obama. During the exchanges, Biden was forced to denigrate his former boss and distinguish himself by opposing many Obama-era policies ushered through his administration (namely immigration).
Third, Obama is a better candidate. He is more energetic, affable, physically and mentally fit, can relate to voters better, and his presence is more defining. It draws a pointed contrast to Biden’s “sleepy” approach, lack of energy and mental gaffes.
Fourth is a point which has largely gone unnoticed. During this election cycle Obama is insistent on trying to use Trump’s campaign rhetoric playbook against him. In the past Obama has attacked Trump mainly on policy and qualifications. Today Obama is using the same pronounced bullying tactics for which he has continually criticized Trump. He is using the same approach and even like words as Trump to undercut Trump’s direct appeal to the voters. Obama is doing this purposefully because he knows it works. Attacking Trump by using phrases like “he’s not so tough” or he’s “running scared” in reference to the president ending his recent “60 Minutes” interview abruptly is what Obama failed to do in 2016. Obama recognized his failures to connect with and motivate voters in the last election, and does not intend to make that same mistake in 2020. By using part of Trump’s campaign strategy, Obama and Democrats are hoping to intensify voters and make sure they go out and vote. It is this intensity that Joe Biden has largely failed to achieve.
Throughout the 2020 campaign Democratic analysts, pundits and supporters have vocalized that Joe Biden is not Hillary Clinton. Yet they are using the same strategy of involving Obama that Clinton’s team used in 2016 because Biden faces the same demographic voter weaknesses. Even more distressing to the Biden campaign is the fact that, like Hillary, Biden has been unable to close crucial gaps in key areas of voter support. It is déjà vu.
Can Obama help his former number two this time around? It is highly improbable. Voters know they are voting for Joe Biden, not Barack Obama. The real concern is whether Obama could actually hurt his former running mate, much like he did Hillary in 2016. In addition, Obama has never been a fan of Biden. In 2020 Obama said, “Don’t underestimate Joe’s ability to (expletive) things up.”
As the polls tighten and key battleground states are well within the margin of error, every vote matters. If Biden loses which is a real possibility given the current state of the election and its similar characteristics to 2016, one thing is certain. History will clearly denote that Obama’s efforts to support and help elect two high-profile democratic candidates serving under him failed. Obama’s legacy will survive. But not the one he intended or ever wanted.
Rick Gates is the former deputy campaign manager for Donald Trump, and is the author of “Wicked Game: An Insider’s Story on How Trump Won, Mueller Failed, and America Lost.”
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