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Did Biden Play the Obama Card Too Soon?

By Peter RoffNewsweek

It’s been decades since the Democrats settled on a presidential nominee as weak as former Vice President Joe Biden. He’s not popular in his own party. In Tuesday’s Kentucky presidential primary, for example, he only won about 60 percent of the vote—and he’s already clinched the nomination.

Party leaders should be worried about this. It’s not as though the only Democrats to show up in the Bluegrass State on Tuesday were the fringes and the freaks. The suddenly competitive race between former congressional candidate Amy McGrath and State Senator Charles Booker for the nomination to go against Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) in the fall brought out Democrats of all stripes all over the state. Much of the party faithful, it’s clear, just doesn’t like the idea of a Biden presidency.

If things were any worse, the talk of replacing him at the top of the ticket might be at a fever pitch by now. Instead, while he hides in his basement—and perhaps because he does—Biden is ahead in every national poll, just about every poll in just about every swing state and is preferred by most voters to Donald Trump on every issue except the handling of the economy. And even if the polls are suspect, as Trump’s team and many Republicans say they are, the Democrats must be pleased with the sentiments those polls reveal.

For all intents and purposes, it is a strange election indeed. Which makes the decision to play the “Obama card” so early in the process curious.Ads by scrollerads.com

Obama is the big gun. He’s Mr. Charisma. He’s the face of the Democratic Party everybody loves. Usually, you’d hold someone like him back for the fall election and then work him nearly to death, sending him to every targeted state, time and again, on the party’s behalf. If Hillary Clinton had been able to do that with husband Bill in 2016, she might have won, but—for reasons already discussed ad nauseam—Republicans like Roger Stone kept him pretty much on the sidelines. Yet rather than hold Obama in reserve to move the voters they need to win late in the election, the Biden people rolled him out earlier in order to raise money.

It makes some sense. Biden may be leading the polls, but he’s trailed way behind Trump in fundraising. That, oddly enough, may end up being what makes the difference in November. The free campaign being waged by the pundits, political reporters and news channels on Biden’s behalf have made the election a referendum on Trump.

That’s a hard race for anyone to win, let alone the current president—especially given the cynical nature of most American voters. No contemporary politician except possibly Ronald Reagan—who won 49 of 50 states in 1984—could run against his own record and win. No one is that good. No one is that beloved. Even Barack Obama, unlike Bill Clinton, got fewer votes running for re-election than he did in 2008.

Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden
Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe BidenJOSHUA ROBERTS/GETTY IMAGES

If it were up to the people who establish the national campaign narratives on the newspapers and TV screens, the campaign would remain a referendum on Trump. But they can’t control that. The president needs to change the conversation and make the election a choice between competing visions of what America should be—and force voters to make that choice.

Team Trump can do it. It has more money in the bank than any of his predecessors, money that’s being used to establish communication channels all over social media. The campaign is even doing original programming to counter what’s airing on the networks. It’s a great leap forward, and Biden alone can’t raise the money to match. So in that sense, playing the Obama card now makes sense. The former vice president’s campaign needs the kind of money only someone of the former president’s stature can raise right now.

It may also be that Obama, while of great value to candidates down-ballot in the general election, won’t be able to help Biden on the stump much at all. The former president will always overshadow the would-be future president at every joint appearance. Appearing on his own, he’s a constant reminder to every Democrat and independent of how charisma- and vision-challenged Biden actually is.

Keeping Biden in the basement may not have been intended as a strategy, at first. It may have just been a response to the COVID-19 lockdowns. But now it looks like a blessing in disguise. The voters, at least right now, are showing a decisive preference for the candidate they can’t see over the one they can. It’s not clear if that is sustainable, but the Democrats will try to keep it going for as long as they can. Unfortunately for the down-ballot races, that may mean keeping Obama under wraps, too. They can’t risk giving Trump anything to play off other than himself.


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