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The shadow of Obama: what influence will the ex-president have on Biden?

David Smith in Washington
·7-min read
<span>Photograph: J. Scott Applewhite/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: J. Scott Applewhite/Getty Images

He’s back with a vengeance. After four years lying low as Donald Trump occupied the White House, Barack Obama is suddenly everywhere again – on TV, on radio, online and in bookshops.

Related: Barack Obama: ‘Donald Trump and I tell very different stories about America’

The 44th US president’s memoir, A Promised Land, was published this week and, shifting nearly 890,000 copies in its first 24 hours, is likely to become the bestselling presidential memoir in modern American history. It topped his wife Michelle Obama’s book, Becoming, which sold 725,000 copies on day one.

As he promotes the 768-page tome, Obama is being asked what influence he and his allies may wield when his former deputy, Joe Biden, assumes the presidency in January. It is a double-edged sword. Biden knows that he will always be able to call on his old boss for advice – but he has big shoes to fill and could suffer by comparison.

“I’m certain Barack would be happy to react to any question or request Biden put to him,” said David Garrow, author of Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama. “But I wonder, having spent eight years as VP [vice-president], whether Biden would hesitate to rely on Barack in any meaningful way because of a feeling that it would be like relying on your older brother.”

Barack Obama and Joe Biden meet for lunch in the White House on 8 January 2014.
Barack Obama and Joe Biden meet for lunch in the White House on 8 January 2014. Photograph: Aude Guerrucci/Getty Images

At 59, Obama is still in his political prime. He writes in the book that, in the month after he and Michelle Obama left the White House, they “slept late, ate leisurely dinners, went for long walks, swam in the ocean, took stock, replenished our friendship, rediscovered our love, and planned for a less eventful but hopefully no less satisfying second act”.

That second act will include another volume of memoirs and a $500m presidential centre in Jackson Park on the South Side of Chicago. Obama demonstrated a model of it to the 60 Minutes programme on the CBS network, explaining that it will include a mock-up of the Oval Office as well as Michelle Obama’s dresses, “which will be very popular no doubt”.

But the former commander-in-chief’s run of interviews – including a piercing diagnosis of how division and disinformation threaten democracy – has also reminded supporters of his rare political gifts and raised the tantalizing prospect of a return to the arena.

In an interview with CBS Sunday Morning, Obama said Biden “doesn’t need my advice, and I will help him in any ways that I can. Now, I’m not planning to suddenly work on the White House staff or something.”

Asked if he would consider a cabinet position, Obama replied: “There are some things I would not be doing because Michelle would leave me. She’d be like, ‘What? You’re doing what?’”

Biden, 78, was a senator from Delaware from 1973 to 2009, then Obama’s vice-president until 2017. Obama has this week lavished praise on Biden and his running mate, Senator Kamala Harris of California, as the country’s best hope of restoring stability after the turmoil of the Trump years.

But he did not always see Biden as his heir apparent. In 2015 he is said to have anointed Hillary Clinton and discouraged Biden from entering the race. When Biden did run in 2020 – his third attempt – Obama was reportedly sceptical again and did not endorse him until he was the presumptive nominee in mid-April.

And now Obama’s book has confirmed that Biden advised against the Navy Seal raid that killed Osama bin Laden in 2011, an issue that Trump sought to exploit on the campaign trail.

Garrow observed: “They ended up disagreeing privately so much on various foreign policy things, like the Osama bin Laden takedown. I somehow think Biden would feel it diminishes him to be calling Barack. But I’d say that about almost any former VP, so it’s a role function more than an individual personality.”

Even so, as Biden contemplates a daunting inbox that includes the coronavirus pandemic, an economic slump and racial unrest, Obama could prove an invaluable source of advice. That would be in keeping with John F Kennedy consulting Dwight Eisenhower during the Cuban missile crisis and a tradition of presidents – with the exception of Trump – sharing the burden with their predecessors.

David Litt, a former speechwriter for the 44th president, said Obama and Biden “had a very strong working relationship and a lot of personal respect and trust and so I do think it’s an interesting situation.

“I’m sure President Obama would have been supportive in whatever way asked with any Democratic president but you’re going to see more continuity among staff than you might otherwise because so many people worked in the Obama administration and then on the Biden campaign and presumably will join the Biden administration.”

Joe Biden was running his own campaign and this is going to be the Joe Biden presidency.

David Litt

Obama alumni reportedly being considered for key positions under Biden include Susan Rice, former national security adviser, and Michèle Flournoy, ex-under defence secretary for policy.

But it would be a mistake to regard the Biden presidency as Obama’s third term, according to Litt, author of Democracy in One Book or Less. “If you look at Biden’s speeches and campaign and his team, they were very clear that Joe Biden’s role as President Obama’s vice-president was an important part of his biography, but Joe Biden was running his own campaign and this is going to be the Joe Biden presidency.”

To underline the point, the Axios website reported that Biden’s transition team has told Obama veterans that they are welcome to apply for jobs but people who worked on the Biden campaign will take priority.

Barack Obama and Joe Biden on stage during a mobilization event at Northwestern high school in Flint, Michigan, on 31 October.
Barack Obama and Joe Biden on stage during a mobilization event at Northwestern high school in Flint, Michigan, on 31 October. Photograph: Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post/Getty Images

One potentially crucial factor in Biden’s thinking could be how Obama is perceived not by the Democratic base but the 73m people who voted for Trump – a man who broke into politics by pushing the racist conspiracy theory that Obama was not born in America. The pragmatic Biden has pledged to heal the bitter schism between red and blue states.

Larry Jacobs, director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota, predicted: “Obama is very popular with Democrats but a mixed bag with Republicans. It’s quite possible, in terms of at least the public presentation, that we might see a bit of George W Bush. He could well be just the kind of Republican leader that Joe Biden is going to need on inauguration day and other key moments to signal normalcy after the deranged presidency of Donald Trump.”

Other commentators suggest that Obama could be a valuable bulwark for the moderate Biden as he faces pressure from his left flank on issues such as police reform and the climate crisis. Pointing to Democratic losses in the House of Representatives, Michael Steele, former chairman of the Republican National Committee, said: “I think Obama’s going to be important in order to keep the progressives somewhat at bay.

“I believe the country is a centre-right country. Democratic friends may believe it’s a centre-left country. What’s common there is the country by and large centres itself around policy and I think Obama can be helpful at times in threading certain needles that otherwise could be problematic for the Biden administration.”

Biden spent eight years in Obama’s shadow. He is about to discover whether, even with the powers of the presidency, he can truly emerge from it. But given the multiple crises he faces from the moment he steps into the Oval Office, it could prove a nice problem to have.

Moe Vela, a former senior adviser to Biden when he was vice-president, said: “Joe Biden is a very secure man. He’s very comfortable in his skin. He knows who he is and frankly he loves and admires Barack Obama. He’s not threatened by the adoration of Barack Obama. If anything, he’s equally a big fan of his.

“I can’t even imagine him being threatened by that at all. The task at hand is so severe and so serious that the last thing Joe Biden is worried about, I’m sure, is whether Barack Obama is getting attention with his book tour. This is not even on his radar screen. He’s happy for Barack Obama. He’s got bigger fish to fry.”