“By the way, I have to tell you, I had lunch with Barack the other day. And I was kidding him; I said, ‘Every time I hear…’ — he’s helping a lot — I said, ‘Every time I hear ‘Hail to the Chief,’ I turn around and look for you, wondering where the hell you are,’” Biden said.
Obama’s increased exposure this week wasn’t just a fundraising effort in the last few days before his quarter-end campaign fundraising deadline. He offered a subtle look at how he and Biden around the world are thinking about his role in 2024.
Confidants and aides expect Obama’s political appearances to be strategic, with an emphasis on leaning in at opportune moments and with an eye on tackling some of the political work Biden has trouble with. That means reaching younger voters, enlisting the next generation of Democratic leaders, and spreading his and Biden’s messages on unconventional platforms beyond campaign events, fundraisers and rallies.
“We are deliberate in choosing our moments. And this is based on a strategy of when we can make an impact,” said Eric Schultz, longtime Obama spokesman.
Obama aides say there was nothing particularly new about his activity this week. The former president raises his visibility around the work he does for his various political and non-profit ventures. And in this case, the Obama Foundation recently hosted a leaders’ forum in Athens.
But there was also an upcoming presidential campaign fundraising deadline at home, which Obama came in handy for. The former president was a factor in Biden’s campaign deadline blitz, which included more than 20 fundraisers across the country, a campaign official told POLITICO. The campaign relied on effective fundraisers and surrogates with strong donor networks such as Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Govs. JB Pritzker of Illinois and Gavin Newsom of California, as he seeks to raise money in the absence of a competitive primary and with donor fatigue still lingering after a busy midterm cycle.
The Obama-Biden pairing was one of the best-performing campaign pieces of 2020, a campaign official said. Then, while having lunch at the White House with his former number two, Obama filmed the two videos, speaking directly to grassroots voters, a move the former president helped propel.
But Obama hasn’t just been mingling with Biden recently. He also met with young Democratic lawmakers on the Hill and sat down for interviews with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour and comedian Hasan Minhaj.
The latter has been seen, in particular, as a way to reach a non-traditional (read: young) audience that isn’t always engaged with national political leaders. And by midweek, his field was blown away in audience metrics: an estimated 27.3 million views across all platforms.
“I was back home in Chicago and my young cousins who are in their 20s, they all saw Hasan Minhaj’s interview. Not everyone saw anything about the four days we were in Greece, but they saw this,” said Valerie Jarrett, CEO of the Obama Foundation and a former senior adviser to Obama. « It’s an example of meeting people where they are…we go where they go. »
Such an approach is one Obama has frequently adopted in the White House when, among other things, he went to Alaska with Bear Grylls, sat down with Zach Galifianakis for his « Between Two Ferns » show, and had dinner with the late Anthony Bourdain in Hanoi for his « Parts Unknown » exhibition.
« If you can connect with young people in a way that feels authentic, that’s going to make a real difference, » Schultz said.
For Biden, reaching this audience could prove crucial. Like Democratic pollster John Della Volpe exhibited in a recent piece, when a Democratic presidential candidate gets 60% of the youth vote, the party is successful.
But the political environment is much more challenging than it was four years ago when it comes to young voters, whose moods are sour, said Della Volpe, director of polling at the Harvard Institute of Politics. While young voters’ political views are more in line with Biden and Democratic priorities than ever: Compared to spring 2019, fewer are likely to vote; few identify as Democrats; fewer follow political news closely; and fewer are « likely to believe that politics is a meaningful way to create change in the system. »
“There’s this big discrepancy between a set of values that I think align between the White House and the Democratic Party and the youth, but it gets lost in translation. Those values don’t translate into support for Democrats,” Volpe said, urging campaigns to invest in reaching young voters.
The underlying theme of Obama’s post-presidency is to « support and uplift » the next generation of leaders, Schultz said. Much of this work is being done through his nonprofit organization, the Obama Foundation, which his aides say has been taking up most of his time since he left the White House.
If Obama is in Greece, stopping by a gathering of musicians called Guitars versus guns on Chicago’s South Side, or meeting in Washington with his team to discuss plans for the Obama Presidential Center coming in 2025, Jarrett said it’s « where his energy and his heart are right now. »
Since 2018, the foundation has launched leadership programs in Africa, Asia and Europe, and Obama just approved the final selection of US leaders. Members of the three cohorts gathered at the Athens forum last month.
Whenever they travel, Jarrett said, she is asked about the state of democracy in the United States and what it means for the rest of the world. The need to send such a message about eroding democracy was not on Obama’s radar when he left office, Jarrett said.
Obama and Biden often discuss this when they get together. While the president has turned his attention to democracy, Obama has stepped up his work on the issue, organizing forums to discuss disinformation and other forces that he believes threaten the state of democracy in the United States and around the world.
“The reason I’m optimistic is because I believe, particularly as I meet with young people around the world, that there is still a fundamental belief in the dignity and worth of individuals and their agency and in determining what their lives are like. I think that’s what young people want,” Obama said in his sitdown with Amanpour. « But our existing democratic institutions are creaky and we will have to reform them. »