Biden, Obama 10 minutes apart but rarely together
President Biden and his onetime boss, former President Obama, haven’t seen each other in person since the inauguration.
And those close to both presidents don’t expect them to meet until Obama’s long-awaited portrait unveiling at the White House this fall.
It’s a significant amount of time apart for two men who live roughly 10 minutes apart and consider themselves close.
Even their phone contact is sporadic. They talk “from time to time,” one source estimated. “It’s not daily, weekly or even monthly. It’s as needed.” But this person also insisted that the two men “have a great relationship.” Another source added, “there’s an open door.”
Other sources in Biden and Obama’s orbit also play down any suggestion of aloofness or unease, saying COVID-19 is a big part of why they have stayed away from each other.
The Biden administration has promoted social distancing during the pandemic, at times even discouraging visitors to the White House to keep the virus under control. Obama has amplified their coronavirus messaging externally.
The one time the former president and current president were together recently was for a virtual event to promote an Obama-era achievement that Biden has expanded: more sign-ups for the Affordable Care Act.
“Love you, man,” Obama said cheerfully at the end of the three-minute Zoom chat.
“I’m still going to call you for advice,” Biden replied with a grin.
The clip is a window into the familiar and jovial dynamic the two often exhibited during the Obama years. Off camera, however, their one-on-one gatherings have been nonexistent — something that points to the complexities in their relationship, despite their allies’ protestations to the contrary.
Biden was Obama’s loyal lieutenant for eight years, but the president backed Hillary Clinton as his natural successor in 2016, pushing the vice president to the side.
When the 2020 election approached, Obama stayed neutral during most of the primary — privately questioning some of Biden’s decisions on his campaign — and only eventually endorsing when he had already effectively won the nomination in April.
Biden insisted that he told Obama not to back him at the time, but sources close to the former president say that never happened.
Biden’s victory over former President Trump was linked to Obama, who campaigned hard for his old No. 2. Black voters who remembered Biden’s allegiance to the nation’s first Black president salvaged the Biden campaign during primary season, first in South Carolina and then on Super Tuesday.
And former Obama officials, including chief of staff Ron Klain, are dotted throughout the new Biden administration, a fact that underscores the affinity between them and their wider networks even as Biden and his Cabinet have been public about not falling into some of the traps they believe captured the Obama agenda in 2009.
Aides and allies downplay the reasons why the two leaders haven’t gotten together.
One White House source said that Biden and Obama’s teams have “closely coordinated” on a variety of domestic and foreign policy areas, including steps to get more people vaccinated, an ongoing effort over which the administration has struggled at points in recent weeks.
“The two, I would say, keep in touch and talk regularly about work stuff,” the White House source said, adding they also “have personal catchups just to chat” when pressed about details.
Beyond COVID-19, the two camps have also collaborated on what the Biden administration considers important international progress, a final troop withdrawal out of Afghanistan by September.
The source pointed to Obama’s statement of support for that decision as an example of an ongoing dialogue. In a release, Obama heralded the change as “bold leadership in building our nation at home and restoring our standing around the world.”
The image of Biden and Obama is sometimes of best buds. A recent video of Biden joking to the former president about the signing of the Affordable Care Act, and photos of the two attending a basketball game together in Washington, D.C., showed off their political friendship.
Yet the two aren’t really the kind of friends who go out of their way to socialize in their free time and there was a distance between the gregarious Biden and the more studious Obama during the White House years.
Earlier this year, during a CNN town hall, Biden admitted he’d never visited Obama in the residence when he was vice president.
“I had been in the Oval Office a hundred times as vice president — more than that — every morning for the initial meetings, but I had never been up in the residence,” he told Anderson Cooper.
Some observers brush off talk about the Obama-Biden relationship as so much navel-gazing.
“It’s not like they’re dating,” said one source directly familiar with both presidents’ interactions.
In the West Wing, Biden has reached out to his old boss, according to the knowledgeable source, but they have still not yet sat down together. With Obama spending the summer at this Martha’s Vineyard home, where he arrived last week, and working on the second act of his memoirs, a meeting seems unlikely anytime soon.
Early into his first term, Biden has logged one main legislative success under a Democratic White House and Congress. His top immediate priority, the Recovery Act, passed with party-line support and helped revive an unstable economy. Biden was praised for his fast action.
“I think Biden has proved to be far more worthy of the support that should have been received and potentially more effective in his first two years than even Obama,” said Michael Eric Dyson, the prominent historian and author who knows both presidents and was part of a well-documented meeting with Biden earlier this year.
He also said things have changed for Biden, who has now won the White House.
“He doesn’t have to depend on Obama nearly as much for public certification, validation, or authentication. He’s a superstar in his own right.”
Abigail Goldberg-Zelizer contributed.
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