Included were progressive members, like Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Maxwell Frost (D-Fla.), as well as more moderate lawmakers, such as Mikie Sherrill (D-N.J.) and Haley Stevens (D-Mich.).
The gatherings were Obama’s idea, I’m told, and were designed for the now-61-year-old former president to keep current with his party’s rising stars, more than six years after he left office.
The sessions, which took place over cheese and crackers in Obama’s Washington office, are striking for a number of reasons.
For starters, he rarely took much of an interest in counseling lawmakers when he was president.
And while he reliably shows up on the stump each year for a number of Democrats, he’s hardly played the role of party power broker since leaving office. Podcasts, documentaries, his foundation and, yes, golf in Hawaii and on Martha’s Vineyard have taken precedence.
Further, there’s the Obama-Biden relationship, which was never the bromance it was made out to be and was soured by Obama effectively tapping Hillary Clinton as his would-be successor. The times Obama has appeared with Biden since the former vice-president became president have been marked by Obama overshadowing Biden.
Surely recognizing this, Obama’s advisers took care to alert the Biden West Wing about the conversations, I’m told. A senior White House official corroborated as much, and said they received feedback from the conversations, but wouldn’t detail what they were told. An Obama adviser declined to offer a comment.
Still, the former president is no doubt aware that convening multiple, extended interactions with House Democrats, even with innocent intentions, could irritate the White House and inflame his off and on rivalry with Biden. And that’s to say nothing of stoking the fever swamp right’s racially unsubtle view that Obama is, alternately, secretly running the Biden White House or plotting his former vice president’s ouster.
The former president was careful to avoid criticizing Biden with the lawmakers, only encouraging Democrats to be aggressive marketing their accomplishments. They should establish their own identity, he said, while allowing that the party’s fate in 2024 would be largely tied to Biden’s success.
One of the gatherings, though, included members who also worked in Obama’s administration and when the former president recalled having won Florida twice, one lawmaker interjected that he also won Ohio. (Biden, few in the room needed reminding, didn’t win either state in 2020.)
Multiple attendees of the conversations told me it was never fully clear to them why Obama wanted to gather. The meetings were described to me a mix of get-to-know-you chatter mixed with long-winded advice, talk of best practices and curiosity about what the lawmakers were hearing at home.
One Democratic perennial that arose: how to avoid coming off as elitist.
Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro’s move to drop the requirement requiring state workers to have a college degree was discussed, as was the effective blue-collar messaging of freshman Representative Marie Gluesenkamp Perez of Washington state.
There were more pressing matters of concern raised, such as lagging turnout among Black men, but there was not an airing of grievances.
That’s perhaps because of the ideological mix present — Sherrill and AOC were at the same meeting, for example — and because some just don’t know Obama well enough to launch into a series of gripes about their own party.
Present for the larger gatherings, if largely mum while his members spoke, was House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries, who didn’t get to Congress until the start of Obama’s second term and is still forging a relationship with the former president.
For all of Obama’s one-president-at-a-time deference, one attendee complained to me that it was to the party’s detriment that Obama was so careful to avoid antagonizing Biden.
Pointing to the former president’s popularity and rhetorical gifts, this person said Obama could help Democrats by being more of a political presence and articulating the stakes, as he did memorably if momentarily in last year’s midterms. After all, Obama was willing to swallow his pride and, at crucial moments, turn to Bill Clinton for help, including in the 2012 campaign.
In fairness to Biden, he was happy to have Obama campaign for Democrats last year, even for candidates who had little appetite for the current president.
But looking back, it may have been easier for Obama to momentarily play the role of supplicant. After all, he had beaten Clinton’s wife in the 2008 primary and then revived her career by bringing her into his administration. Much the same as he did for his vice president.