Barack Obama has in recent months met with at least nine prospective 2020 Democratic presidential candidates, including Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden and Deval Patrick, pulling them in for one-on-one sessions at his Washington office.
All the meetings were arranged quietly, without even some close advisers to the people involved being told of the conversations, in part because of how much Obama bristles at his private meetings becoming public knowledge. All have been confirmed to POLITICO by multiple people who have been briefed on the secretive sit-downs.
The meetings have been at Obama’s personal office on the third floor of the World Wildlife Fund building in D.C.’s West End neighborhood, and they show how a stream of ambitious, searching politicians are looking for guidance and support from the man who has remained the reluctant leader of the Democratic Party, eager to be involved, though not directly. He’s not making any promises of support, though, and is not expected to endorse in the 2020 race until after a nominee has emerged.
Obama so far has avoided direct conflict with President Donald Trump — save for a few public statements criticizing his moves attempting to dismantle the Iran nuclear deal, Obamacare and the protection program for Dreamers, though without naming Trump.
But Obama is concerned about how his own party is responding, and how it can be best positioned to win in the midterms and in the next presidential cycle to beat back the president and his politics.
He doesn’t see himself as the person to come up with the plan, people who know about the meetings say, but he is eager to be a sounding board and counselor to the Democrats he sees as playing a role in shaping the party’s future.
Obama’s office declined comment on all the meetings.
Sanders, who has more respect for Obama and the work of his administration than is often portrayed, requested his meeting with the former president, held in mid-March, people told about that conversation confirmed.
They talked about the future of the party and their different roles in it. They talked about what the party should be focused on, and what would be distractions. Obama discussed his views on the differences between idealism and practicality, and Sanders responded with his.
They did not get into a specific discussion about whether Sanders would run again for president in 2020.
The meeting with Warren was Obama’s second since leaving office, according to people who know about both encounters. The first was in the spring of 2017 after Warren said she was “troubled” by the $400,000 Obama was getting to speak at a Wall Street investment firm, describing it as an example of the influence of money that she called “a snake that slithers through Washington.”
Obama responded by inviting her in. They heard each other out. She did not apologize, but she acknowledged what she’d kicked up with the comment, and they talked about keeping that conversation in mind for the future.
The second meeting, warmer from start to finish, came just this past April and ran well into 90 minutes. They talked about Richard Cordray, the former head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau who is now the Democratic nominee for governor in Ohio. They reminisced. They talked about Trump.
Obama and Biden remain personally close and speak by phone, and the former vice president also came by for an in-person meeting in January. He’s waiting until after the midterms to make a decision on 2020, though many people see him as leaning toward it. The 2020 race and what Biden’s going to do haven’t come up in those discussions, though, with Obama waiting on his friend to make a decision, according to people who have been briefed on their conversations.
Patrick, the former Massachusetts governor and personal friend whom Obama and many in his inner circle are eager to see get into the 2020 race — and who has recently been making rumblings that he very well might — has been in to the office too. Patrick, though, is on the board of the Obama Foundation, giving them at least an outward reason for the meeting beyond politics.
“The president was generous with his time and advice, and he was excited to talk about the future,” said one person familiar with one of the meetings.
Many of the conversations have circled around Obama holding forth about how much Democrats should be heading into the midterms talking about the investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 election versus focusing on kitchen table issues. Don’t chase the shiny objects, he tells them. Don’t hyperventilate over the flash of any tweet. Think about what’s going to stick in the long term.
This has all happened against the backdrop of Obama’s continuing work on his memoir, which he fell behind schedule on writing and for which he does not yet have a release date. He’s also been doing major fundraising for his foundation, and building out a stronger sense of what sort of programs it should have to fulfill his vision of it as a social organizing engine for creating more good in the world.
And he’s continued to make those very well-paid speeches.
On the road and over the phone, major donors and other panicked Democrats have been pushing him to take on a bigger public role in the fight against Trump. He has demurred on that — for now — keeping to his plan of waiting until the fall to begin making endorsements and campaign appearances.
In private, it’s a different story. He’s urged donors to contribute to the Democratic National Committee. And he’s been eager to bring in many of the people he sees as key players in grappling with the crisis the party is in, as well as leading it to whatever comes next. His staff is building out his plan to start endorsing and hitting the campaign trail in the fall, with an emphasis on down-ballot races.
Meanwhile, people who have been told about other meetings confirmed that they’re going on with some of the lesser known potential 2020 candidates, too. Mitch Landrieu, the former New Orleans mayor being urged to run for president — including by some Obama alumni — sat with the former president in the fall. Jason Kander, the failed 2016 Missouri Senate candidate who’s looking at making an against-all-odds White House run, stopped by in January. And Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who’s thinking of a run of his own, was in to see Obama at the end of last year.
Eric Garcetti, the mayor of Los Angeles and one of the early supporters of Obama’s 2008 campaign, hasn’t been to the Washington office, but he got his private meeting when Obama was in town to attend a dinner in May for the American Constitution Center, say several people who were told of that meeting.
According to multiple people familiar with them, the meetings run long, often over an hour. Obama tends to give advice, guidance, talk about the future of the party, and everyone’s places in it. The conversations can be searching, get philosophical, then quickly veer back to brass tacks. He’ll give his thoughts on campaigns. He’ll offer to help make sure donors and party bigwigs are returning calls.
The people in them walk out appreciative but tight-lipped. They worry that if word gets out, Obama might renege on his offers to help and not invite them again if they do.
Among the other speculated 2020 candidates who haven’t been through: Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris and Terry McAuliffe. Cory Booker was in to see Obama last year, shortly after he returned from his extended post-White House vacation, but hasn’t been back since.
But run-ins like that one are among the ways that the meetings get started. Obama sees a future-minded Democrat he’s interested in getting to know more and tells them vaguely that they should come by to see him. And they are eager to.
It’s not just prospective presidential candidates, according to people aware of other meetings. Harry Reid, the former Senate Democratic leader, stopped by while on a trip through town at the end of March.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has urged Obama over the phone to see massive fundraising as the best way he can help Senate Democrats in 2018. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has also been on the phone with Obama, urging him toward fundraising — and he’s now scheduled to do a fundraising event for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee on June 29 in the Bay Area. Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez also continues to check in.
Other senators have been by as well, including Colorado’s Michael Bennet, Delaware’s Chris Coons and Alabama’s Doug Jones, according to people familiar with those meetings.
“As a former senator and president, it was a privilege to meet with him and hear his perspectives and advice on leadership, separate and apart from any politics,” said Jones, who pointed out that he also met with Trump and is hoping to meet with George W. Bush.
Obama’s also met with Eric Holder to talk about the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, but the chatter that the former attorney general has kept going about how he might actually run for president himself hasn’t been at the forefront of those conversations, said people told about those conversations.
“I think it’s great that he’s meeting with people who are interested in the future of the country and the party,” said a person familiar with another one of the meetings.