The meeting was the first sign of Obama getting personally involved in conversations with O’Rourke, who, despite his November loss in a U.S. Senate race in Texas, has triggered more recent discussion and speculation than any other candidate in the burgeoning 2020 field.
TMZ, the Hollywood-based entertainment website, is now trailing O’Rourke; he is being swamped by calls from Democratic operatives eager to work for him, and other campaigns-in-the-making are eyeing his moves closely for any signs of his intentions. O’Rourke said at an El Paso town hall last week that he was considering a run, pending discussions with his family.
His meeting with Obama came amid cross-pressures on O’Rourke to forgo a run for president to mount another bid for U.S. Senate, challenging Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) in 2020.
A spokeswoman for Obama declined to comment on the meeting. O’Rourke’s spokesman also declined to comment.
The former president has reportedly met with several potential 2020 candidates, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and former New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu (D).
He is in the awkward position of trying to ensure his party wins back the White House, but without weighing in too aggressively in a primary that could consist of his former vice president (Joe Biden), a longtime friend (former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick) and some of his former Cabinet officials (Eric H. Holder Jr., his attorney general, and Julián Castro, his housing secretary).
Obama’s stated mission has been to build a new generation of Democratic leaders, and two weeks ago he said that O’Rourke, who is 46, reminded him of himself. The three-term congressman, he said, was one of the rare politicians who can connect with a wide swath of the electorate in an increasingly siloed country.
“The reason I was able to make a connection with a sizable portion of the country was because people had a sense that I said what I meant,” Obama said in an interview for “The Axe Files,” a podcast hosted by his former top strategist David Axelrod. “What I oftentimes am looking for first and foremost is, do you seem to mean it? Are you in this thing because you have a strong set of convictions that you are willing to risk things for?”
“What I liked most about his race was that it didn’t feel constantly poll-tested,” Obama added of O’Rourke. “It felt as if he based his statements and his positions on what he believed. And that, you’d like to think, is normally how things work. Sadly it’s not.”
O’Rourke last month finished 2.6 percentage points behind Republican Sen. Ted Cruz. Even in defeat, however, he was able to build a deep fundraising base, bringing in more money than any other candidate in the nation, and had a knack for creating moments that went viral online.
He vowed repeatedly not to run in 2020 during his Senate campaign but has been reevaluating those plans over the last few weeks. One of the major factors weighing on him is the strain placed on his family. He was away for long stretches during the Senate race, which was particularly hard on his kids.
Some of his closest friends still expect him to run, with one of them putting 60-40 odds on his getting into the race.
O’Rourke has enlisted his longtime aide, David Wysong, to handle the barrage of incoming calls. But he has not made any commitments and has largely ignored requests coming from groups in the early-voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire eager to have him visit.
O’Rourke was not among the slate of candidates that Obama endorsed during the midterm elections, but that came in part at O’Rourke’s request.
Obama offered several times to help O’Rourke’s campaign, including to come to Texas for a rally or to record robo-calls offering his endorsement, according to a source close to the O’Rourke campaign. Obama even recorded a video that O’Rourke’s campaign never utilized; it remained a subject of internal debate.
O’Rourke rarely used surrogates during his campaign and did not like the idea of having outside voices tell Texans how to vote. He also hasn’t forgotten his 2012 congressional campaign, when Obama — as well as another former president, Bill Clinton — endorsed his opponent, eight-term Democratic congressman Silvestre Reyes.
“I don’t think we’re interested,” O’Rourke said in October about an Obama endorsement. “I am so grateful to him for his service; he’s going to go down as one of the greatest presidents. And yet, this is on Texas.”
He also referred to the 2012 campaign, in which the top Democrats worked against him.
“Bill Clinton fills up the county coliseum, and a screaming El Paso Times front-page headline [said] ‘President urges El Paso to stick with Reyes,’ ” he said. “And we won. And what that drove home for me is that someone else’s popularity is not transferrable to a given candidate.”