The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

They worked for Obama. They’re not supporting Biden — yet.

Barack Obama and Joe Biden in 2008. Many Obama loyalists are split on whether to support Biden as a 2020 Democratic candidate.
Barack Obama and Joe Biden in 2008. Many Obama loyalists are split on whether to support Biden as a 2020 Democratic candidate. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

Only one of the 21 Democrats running for president wants voters to see him as the establishment choice best able to fulfill the promise of President Barack Obama’s third term. But former vice president Joe Biden has yet to become a consensus pick of the White House and campaign advisers who made Obama’s two terms possible.

With some exceptions, the generation that brought to Washington an insurgent message they called “hope and change” is once again resisting pressure to get in line, as they scan the field for a possible heir to Obama’s transformational 2008 candidacy and worry about a repeat of the disastrous 2016 election.

Many others, however, speak of their continued hunger for a new generation of leadership and a fresh face who can transcend political divisions. They worry about siding with a lifelong Washington fixture. And they are eager for someone like Obama who can bring new voters to the polls.

Like many of those interviewed, Kathleen Sebelius, the former Kansas governor who served as health and human services secretary in the Obama administration, spoke of Biden’s character and his service as vice president with admiration, but she nonetheless has not committed to any candidate.

“I want to see who lights a fire and who inspires folks to get engaged and involved,” she said.

The question of who deserves to inherit the mantle of Obama’s movement, which remains the most potent unifying force in an increasingly fractious party, has been the subject of constant debate among close-knit Obama alumni.

This account is based on interviews with 53 former Obama advisers, senior White House and Cabinet staff, and campaign professionals, many of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not ready to take a public position on Biden’s campaign.

In almost all of these conversations, the affection for Biden ran deep, as did the admiration for his campaign launch last month, which resulted in a bump in polls that now put his support at about 40 percent nationally among Democratic primary voters.

These former officials say they are committed to helping him in a general election if he secures the nomination, and they believe Obama feels much the same way, as his office signaled this past week when it did not object to Biden’s plan to use Obama’s voice from a White House event to narrate an online Biden campaign spot.

But concern about a Biden candidacy — and a demand that he prove himself on the campaign trail — is also a constant refrain.

“Where I am in this race is very similar to where a lot of Obama people are. The Biden loyalty is real,” said Rufus Gifford, Obama’s finance director in 2012, who has co-hosted a Biden fundraiser but not yet committed to his candidacy. “But this is a little bit bipolar. Obama people were all courted by the establishment candidate in ’07 very aggressively and decided to go in a different direction.”

President Trump proved a wily campaigner, able to spark real enthusiasm among his core voters. Several of Obama’s generation said they worried about how Biden would match up against Trump were he to win the nomination.

“I think the question that we all have in our minds from an electoral standpoint is what do two 75-year-olds fighting against each other look like,” said one former campaign and White House aide who spoke on the condition of anonymity to preserve relations. “Does that scream the future? Does that scream contrast?”

The former aides split broadly into three groups. Only eight had committed or were leaning toward Biden. A second group of 11 have committed to other candidates. A group of 34 say they are still waiting to decide.

Among those who had not yet picked a favorite, there was remarkable unanimity of preferences: Almost all said they had limited their consideration to five candidates now in the sprawling field: Biden, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) and former congressman Beto O’Rourke of Texas.

That list notably excluded the several governors and senators who are likely to appear on the first Democratic debate stage in June, not to mention the runner-up in the 2016 primary battle, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). Views of Sanders, who has polled in second place nationally in early surveys, ranged from open hostility to praise for his contribution to the policy debate in the party, and a willingness to help him beat Trump should he secure the nomination.

Most importantly, all the undecided described in different ways a set of hard-to-define qualities and campaign trail magic they were seeking in the next nominee. Their service to Obama, who upended long odds and 232 years of U.S. history to become the first African American president, defined their lives and is the lens through which they view the coming campaign.

The mythology of his campaign, which carried into the White House and the 2012 reelection, was always anchored in a rebellion against the Democratic establishment in the form of Hillary Clinton, who led national polling by about 20 points through much of 2007. Obama was different, his people believed, able to transcend categories, blur coalitions and get people excited beyond promising them a mere transactional gain.

That is the quality most of Obama’s former aides now say they are seeking in the field. They include people such as Kyle Lierman, a former senior policy adviser in the White House Office of Public Engagement. A former campaign intern for Biden in early 2007, he used the word “love” when speaking of Biden, and he said he was ready to drop everything in 2016 to work on his campaign if he had run against Clinton for the nomination.

But Lierman also remembers watching Obama give the Iowa Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinner speech in November 2007, a moment that caused him to drop out of college and spend nearly a year living in six states to elect him. He hungers to see that spark again, and is not yet ready to commit.

“Who is the one that a kid now is going to see give a Jefferson-Jackson speech and want to drop out of college for?” Lierman said. “At the end of the day the unique thing that Barack Obama was able to do was bridge the progressive-moderate divide and mobilize people around hope. And we’ll see if Biden is the person to do that.”

If there is an emerging option, it has been Buttigieg, who has in recent months zoomed past O’Rourke as the most praised performer on the campaign trail. Buttigieg has been helped by Lis Smith, who was director of rapid response for Obama’s 2012 campaign, and Stephen Brokaw, who was digital projects manager for Obama in 2012. Smith is Buttigieg’s communications adviser, and Brokaw is his national political director.

Buttigieg also has garnered a significant share of the wealthy network of early financial donors that helped launch Obama’s campaign in 2007, a group with a clear preference of working for candidates with whom they forge an emotional relationship.

“Based on my conversations and instincts, more of the early Obama folks who were there at the beginning are either helping or leaning toward helping Pete than anybody else,” said former ambassador to Canada David Jacobson, who was a deputy finance chair for Obama’s 2008 campaign. “They see a lot in Pete that they saw in Barack Obama: Yeah it’s a long shot, but he’s so damn smart, and he is so decent, and it really could be a transformational thing.”

The rub on Buttigieg, volunteered by multiple former Obama aides, is the open question of whether he can build a political operation. “To catch lightning in a bottle you have to have a bottle,” observed one former Obama campaign adviser who has been intrigued by the mayor’s candidacy.

Through the first quarter of the year, fewer than 1 in 10 of the roughly 1,330 major donors from Obama’s two presidential campaigns had given $2,700 or more to any of the 2020 candidates. Of those who had donated, Harris had attracted support from the most of those who bundled donations for Obama, followed by Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.) and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.). But the data showed more donations to candidates who had announced earlier in the year, and did not include any to Biden’s campaign, which did not exist until after the first quarter reporting deadline.

A Biden spokesman said the campaign was attempting to infuse the campaign with an array of former Obama aides as well as fresh talent who worked on the 2018 elections or are new to politics.

Biden has on his team at least a dozen former Obama aides, including Greg Schultz, who was Obama’s state director in Ohio and is now Biden’s campaign manager, and Pete Kavanaugh, who was Obama’s state director in New Hampshire and is now deputy campaign manager. Anita Dunn, a longtime Obama adviser, and John Anzalone, who was an Obama campaign pollster, also have been advising Biden.

In a major get for Biden’s team, Pete Rouse, a key architect of Obama’s campaign and White House operation, has signed onto the campaign as an adviser, according to a person close to the campaign.

Some former Obama advisers say privately that a divide exists between those who saw the Obama-Biden relationship up close and those who did not. Those who saw it up close are more prone to think highly of Biden and view his chances more favorably. But other staffers with a more distant view have been leaning more heavily toward Buttigieg.

“If you were there, you got a firsthand look,” said Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who served as Obama’s first chief of staff. “You know the guy who never bucked any assignment, took everything on, whatever he was given, whether around the globe or every nook and cranny of the country.”

Emanuel, who is completing his second term as mayor of Chicago, said he plans to take a long break before deciding where he stands on the 2020 race. Two other White House chiefs of staff — William Daley and Denis McDonough — have also declined to pick a candidate at this stage.

People who have worked directly for Biden are also more favorable to the vice president.

“I think it’s important to be hopeful and inclusive, to try to bring us together rather than divide us,” said former White House press secretary Jay Carney, who worked for Biden before moving to Obama. “That’s what Obama did. And that’s what Biden does.”

Carney is committed to Biden, though before the vice president entered the race, he also cut campaign checks for O’Rourke, Harris, Buttigieg and Booker, whom he also describes as unifying figures.

Others have been more skeptical. Some have expressed public support for Biden but privately are helping other candidates.

“Joe Biden is a very nice guy; he’s an extraordinarily nice person. But he was like a hedged bet by team Obama,” said Arun Chaudhary, an early 2008 Obama staffer who became the first White House videographer and whose firm is now working for 2020 candidate Marianne Williamson. “He was everything Obama wasn’t just in case the country didn’t want a young charismatic black guy. Biden was picked because he was the opposite of that, an old establishment Washington guy. It turned out America did want the young handsome black guy.”

That debate has so far stayed in private channels, with rare exception. Shortly after Biden announced, Warren criticized his vote on a 2005 bankruptcy bill that she said favored credit card companies over struggling Americans. Jen Psaki, a former Obama White House communications director, responded by tweeting that Warren would still be “a beloved Harvard Law Professor not a presidential candidate” if it were not for Obama and Biden supporting her from the White House.

Macon Phillips, a former White House director of digital strategy who has not settled on a candidate, responded on Twitter by saying that he respected Psaki, but her response was “more than wrong.” He also announced that he was giving $100 to Warren.

“It was a knee-jerk reaction to seeing Elizabeth Warren attacking him right out of the gate,” said Psaki, who agrees with many of Warren’s policies. “I don’t know who I’m going to support in the primary but the tweet was a reflection of the affection a lot of us have for Joe Biden.”

Other top staffers from Obama’s campaigns have splintered off to various other candidates. Jim Margolis, an admaker and senior adviser to both of Obama’s presidential campaigns, is now a top strategist for Harris. Warren has nabbed Joe Rospars, who oversaw digital strategy for both of Obama’s campaigns, and Emily Parcell, who was political director of Obama’s 2008 Iowa caucuses team.

O’Rourke has attracted some top Obama talent; his campaign manager, Jen O’Malley Dillon, worked on both of Obama’s campaigns and has the admiration of many in the Obama orbit. O’Rourke also just hired Jeff Berman, who was in charge of Obama’s delegate operation, which many point to as critical to his 2008 victory.

While O’Rourke has faded from prominence since his March announcement, several Obama loyalists praised O’Malley Dillon as a methodical strategist who is able to build for a long campaign. They see in her strategy something familiar: Obama, too, struck a relatively low profile in the middle of 2007 before emerging weeks before voting began with a significant grass-roots campaign structure behind him.

Anu Narayanswamy contributed to this report.