NEW YORK. – A secret meeting of former President Barack Obama’s financial backers convened in Washington early this month. Organised by David Jacobson and John Phillips,Obama’s former ambassadors to Canada and Italy, the group interviewed an array of 2020 presidential candidates and debated whether to throw their wealth behind one or two of them.
Obama had no role in the event, but it unfolded in his political shadow. As presidential hopefuls like Senators Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Amy Klobuchar and Sherrod Brown auditioned before them, the donors wondered aloud whether Obama might signal a preference in the race, according to three people briefed on the meeting, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
David Axelrod, Obama’s former chief strategist, told the group they should expect no such directive. Axelrod confirmed in an interview that he briefed the gathering, recalling: “They asked me about Obama endorsing. I said, ‘I don’t imagine he will.’”
Axelrod said he had been sharing his own perspective, not speaking as an official Obama emissary. But his forecast matches what Obama has told friends and likely presidential candidates in private: that he does not see it as his role to settle the 2020 nomination, and prefers to let the primary unfold as a contest of ideas. Michelle Obama, the former first lady, also has no plans to endorse a candidate, a person familiar with her thinking said.
Even former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. does not expect to secure Obama’s backing if he runs, according to allies of Biden’s.
Yet if Obama has all but officially taken a vow of neutrality, he remains the party’s most convincing model for success at the national level, and continues to shape the mind-set and strategy of Democratic presidential candidates.
He has counselled more than a dozen declared or likely candidates on what he believes it will take to beat President Trump, holding private talks with leading contenders like Harris, Booker and Senator Elizabeth Warren; underdogs like Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana; and prominent figures who remain undecided on the race, like Eric H. Holder, his former attorney general, and Michael R. Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York.
During these informal conversations, usually at his office in Washington, Obama has offered a combination of supportive advice and sober warnings, cautioning candidates that running for president is a more punishing process than they could ever imagine, according to seven people who have spoken with him directly or were briefed in detail on the meetings.
Obama continues to express frustration that he did not anticipate Trump’s victory, these people said, even after years of clashing with the forces of right-wing populism as president. He has urged candidates to push back on Trump’s bleak and divisive rhetoric about economic change, and to deliver a competing message that can resonate even in Republican-leaning areas, courting rural voters and other communities that tend to distrust Democrats.
Eric Schultz, a senior adviser to Obama, said the former president was encouraged by the “diverse, experienced and principled” field of candidates taking shape, and said Obama had been “happy to speak privately with candidates seeking his guidance on the best way to lead the country.”
“President Obama counsels candidates to always show up and make their case even in areas or in front of audiences they may not necessarily win; express views and positions that reflect their genuine beliefs; and share a positive vision for the country true to their own personal story,” he said.
The discreet role Obama is taking reflects his longstanding ambivalence about acting as a partisan political leader, and has the potential to disappoint Democrats who pine for him to intercede more decisively. Known for his lack of interest in intraparty wrangling when he was president, Obama has privately voiced both an impatience to move on from politics and an urgent sense of responsibility to do what he can to thwart Trump. – New York Times