Obama steps in to gin up flagging Biden support
Still acclimating to the post-White House political spotlight, former President Barack Obama is back ginning up enthusiasm for President Joe Biden and other Democrats as the incumbent struggles to unite his party and the country behind his sprawling liberal agenda.
Most Democrats have welcomed Obama's reemergence following a break after his book tour. But his presence raises questions about Biden's ability to lead the party as infighting threatens to derail his priorities, including climate action, in Congress.
Top Democrats have realized they do not have the luxury of worrying about Biden’s feelings if his old boss overshadows him on the campaign trail, according to political analyst Dan Schnur.
"Obama is the most popular politician in the country right now, and any Democratic candidate who is relying on support from swing voters needs him. This is what’s happening in Virginia right now, but next year you’ll see Obama campaigning in these key districts in addition to, or instead of, Biden," the Republican-turned-independent, now at the University of California, said.
The former president also has cachet with climate activists and others Biden has had trouble keeping motivated. Obama is one of many U.S. officials being dispatched to Glasgow in a demonstration to the world that the country can spearhead the issue, despite Democratic bickering over Biden's $2 trillion social welfare and climate spending package. But Obama's schedule, which includes meeting "with young activists engaged in the climate fight" and delivering remarks "putting the threat of climate change in broader context," adds credibility to the U.S. case and papers over Biden's weaknesses with young people. International climate envoy John Kerry conceded this week, for instance, that Biden and congressional Democrats' inaction “hurts” them with their foreign counterparts.
One month after breaking ground at his presidential library site in Chicago, Democratic gubernatorial nominees Terry McAuliffe of Virginia and Phil Murphy of New Jersey announced this week that Obama would canvass with them before their off-year Nov. 2 elections. Obama will then jet off to Scotland for the United Nations' 26th climate summit five years after his signature environmental agreement, the Paris accord, went into effect.
Obama is stumping with McAuliffe because "he is the only candidate in this race that will lead the Commonwealth out of this pandemic and keep Virginia’s economy strong," the invitation to their Oct. 23 Richmond rally reads. But it was circulated one week after McAuliffe told what he thought was a private video teleconference that Biden "is unpopular today unfortunately here in Virginia, so we have got to plow through." McAuliffe's closer-than-expected contest against Republican Glenn Youngkin after Biden swept Virginia less than a year ago has Democrats rattled about the 2022 midterm elections.
Biden's popularity is dissipating. His average job approval rating is 44%, while his disapproval rating is 52%, according to RealClearPolitics . At roughly the same point in his presidency, Obama was at 52% approval and 41% disapproval . His average approval over his two terms in office was 48% and his disapproval was 47%. Biden was also elected for his calming influence compared to former President Donald Trump, a quality that has at times handicapped his efforts to capture the electorate's attention.
The White House has downplayed links between Biden and the Virginia governor's race. But press secretary Jen Psaki acknowledged this week the "alignment" between the older white male centrist Democrats, "whether it is the need to invest in rebuilding our roads, rails, and bridges, or making it easier for women to rejoin the workforce." McAuliffe, a former Virginia governor, Democratic National Committee chairman, and Clinton family ally, decided to run for a second nonconsecutive term after Biden solidified his position as the 2020 presidential nomination frontrunner.
"There's a lot of history here in Virginia," Psaki said. "But, again, we're going to do everything we can to help former Gov. McAuliffe, and we believe in the agenda he’s representing."
After suggesting Biden was a drag on his ticket, McAuliffe alluded to a campaign event following up from the pair's last appearance together in July. Psaki did not have details regarding the gathering this week, but first lady Jill Biden did fly to Richmond on Friday.
"McAuliffe is in trouble — and he knows it," Republican National Committee spokesman Jacob Schneider said. "If this election is a harbinger of what is to come, Democrats have every reason to be worried."
Obama and Biden have a complicated relationship beyond the "bromance" promoted over the course of their administration. Obama counseled Biden that he did not have to vie for the presidency, and declined to weigh in during the lengthy primary. Obama has been judicious, too, about speaking publicly since leaving the White House out of respect to Biden and Trump.
"Obviously, the current president [and] the former president are friends, and they engage on a regular basis," Psaki said last month.
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