OPINION — Barack Obama doesn’t want to get involved in the Democratic presidential primary. That much was clear Monday when a source close to the former president told CNN that Obama won’t endorse any candidate for now, including his former vice president, Joe Biden, or Sen. Bernie Sanders.
“We are skeptical that an endorsement coming from us could truly change the political winds right now,” the source said, adding that if Obama did make an endorsement, there would be “a very real chance it backfires.”
“He’s prepared to play a vigorous role in coalescing the party around the nominee and working to defeat [Donald] Trump, but weighing in now likely only divides things worse and weakens his standing for when the party will need it most,” the person added.
It’s not clear whom the endorsement would backfire on, nor when an endorsement from Obama would carry more weight for voters — and the eventual winner of the presidential campaign — than before voting concludes on Super Tuesday. Poll after poll shows Democrats will get behind whomever they believe can beat Trump and win the White House. The question erupting inside the party at the moment is how best to get there. In the former president’s own words, there is a “fierce urgency of now.”
At stake in the Super Tuesday contests are delegates, of course. On Tuesday alone, 1,357 of the party’s 3,979 total delegates will be up for grabs from California to Alabama. With just 155 pledged delegates decided so far, just six delegates separate Biden and Sanders. A massive win Tuesday could be insurmountable for one of the two, not to mention former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg, whose name will be in front of voters for the first time.
But more than delegates are on the line. For Obama alone, the future of his legacy is at stake. Trump has made unwinding that legacy the central focus of both his 2016 campaign and his administration since the day he took office. He has worked to erase Obama’s signature achievements on free trade, immigration, foreign policy and not to mention the Affordable Care Act. Which candidate does Obama think can best protect that legacy by simply winning in November?
Biden has said he’ll build on the Obama legacy he was a part of by adding a public option to supplement the ACA, expanding immigration and returning to an Obama foreign policy more marked by cooperation than declaration.
A Sanders White House would be bolder and broader. Sanders has promised “Medicare for All,” a federal jobs guarantee, free college tuition at public colleges and free child care. And he’s promised a way to pay for all of it through tax increases and premiums hikes.
Does Obama have a preference between what Biden calls “an evolution” from the Obama years or the revolution Sanders wants to see? He isn’t saying so if he does.
Another question that could get a final answer Tuesday night is what the top of the ticket will look like for every other Democratic candidate running this year. In 2018, Democrats managed to win 31 House districts that had backed Trump two years earlier. Which nominee does Obama think set the best table for those majority makers?
A South Carolina lesson
There always seems to be an open question about whether endorsements really matter in a presidential election. But a key endorsement from House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn seemed crucial to Biden’s win in South Carolina on Saturday. Like Obama, Clyburn had been reluctant to go public with his choice. But days before votes were cast, the senior Democrat in the state announced, “I want the public to know that I’m voting for Joe Biden. South Carolina should be voting for Joe Biden.”
In the end, Biden won South Carolina by nearly 30 points, including more than 60 percent of African Americans, who make up more than half of the Southern state’s Democratic electorate. Only 16 percent supported Sanders.
According to primary-day polling, 61 percent said the endorsement from Clyburn, who has represented South Carolina for nearly three decades, was an important factor in their decision, including 27 percent who said it was “the most important factor.”
Making an endorsement is a risk for any national figure. But Obama has made plenty of endorsements since he left the White House. In the 2018 midterms, he endorsed more than 100 candidates for office. He made picks for Senate, governor, House and state legislatures, including everyone from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York to Ayanna Pressley in Massachusetts. He picked Stacey Abrams for governor in Georgia and Andrew Gillum in Florida. He gave the nod to newcomers and incumbents, progressives and moderates, and in the process, gave them all a dose of credibility and trust with that crucial Obama coalition.
An endorsement from Obama now would do the same.
When the Obamas signed their multimillion-dollar deal with Netflix, the former president said he wanted to cultivate talent that would tell stories that “promote greater empathy and understanding between peoples.” Michelle Obama said they wanted to share stories that “inspire us, to make us think differently about the world around us, and to help us open our minds and hearts to others.”
Barack Obama could do all of that and more in a single moment by giving voters clarity on where he thinks the country should be going, and which candidate for president he believes is best equipped to get us there.
Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy.