Here we go again: Another Obama-Biden flimflam

Once again, we are being flimflammed by Joe BidenJoe BidenBudget official says he didn't know why military aid was delayed: report Growing 2020 field underscores Democratic divide READ: Foreign service officer Jennifer Williams' closed-door testimony from the House impeachment inquiry MORE and Barack ObamaBarack Hussein Obama'Too Far Left' hashtag trends on Twitter Krystal Ball: Patrick's 2020 bid is particularly 'troublesome' for Warren Deval Patrick: Biden 'misses the moment' in 2020 campaign MORE.

Back during the 2012 presidential campaign we were set up to believe that a slip of the tongue by the gaffe-prone Vice President Biden smoked out President Obama to prematurely declare his support for same-sex marriage. Now, we are asked to buy the line that Obama is not endorsing Biden in his 2020 White House bid because Biden asked him not to.

"I asked President Obama not to endorse," Biden told reporters in Delaware on Thursday, the day he officially announced his candidacy for the 2020 Democratic nomination. "Whoever wins this nomination should win it on their own merits."

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Earlier in the day, anticipating that political reporters would ask why Obama had not done the obvious and embraced the candidacy of his hand-picked, eight-year vice president, Biden Deputy Campaign Manager Kate Bedingfield went on MSNBC to tell one and all that Biden “asked” Obama not to do it.

“The vice president actually asked the president not to endorse. He wanted to make the case,” she said. “You know, he is running in this race because he believes we need to restore the soul of this nation.”

Sounds good, but it feels like campaign spin to spare Biden the embarrassment that his former boss is not going to endorse him. No former vice president would want to run in a jam-packed primary field without the endorsement of the popular president he faithfully served. It raises questions as to why Obama has reservations about giving him his seal of approval. Thus, the I-asked-him-not-to ruse.

The Twittersphere, if not the political experts, quickly erupted with disbelief. Many questioned who in his right mind would ask the most popular Democrat on the planet to not endorse him. One wag joked: “I told the head cheerleader not to go to the prom with me. I wanted to go by myself.”

It goes without saying that an Obama endorsement would be political gold for any Democrat running. He is a god to Democratic voters. His blessing would unleash big primary money, experienced campaign talent and a strong, charismatic campaigner to help in the long slog toward the nomination in a jam-packed Democratic field.

So, to believe that Biden asked Obama to sit it out stretches credibility. But it provides Biden with cover. To help in that cover, Obama spokesperson Katie Hill put out a statement after Biden joined the race saying nice things about the former veep.

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“President Obama has long said that selecting Joe Biden as his running mate in 2008 was one of the best decisions he ever made,” she said. “He relied on the Vice President’s knowledge, insight and judgment in both campaigns and the entire presidency.  The two forged a special bond over the last 10 years and remain close today.”

But note that the statement did not say Obama thinks Biden would make a good president, or even say he was well qualified to be chief executive.

From Obama’s standpoint, his assertion that he will not endorse any Democrat running saves him from making a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t choice. Every Democrat in the big 2020 field would love to have his endorsement. It’s political gold. However, if he were to endorse one of them, he would immediately put himself in a difficult bind.

For example, if he endorsed Biden:

  • African-American candidates such as Sens. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Corey Booker (D-N.J.) might feel betrayed;
  • Women candidates such as Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Kristin Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) might grumble that Obama is not as progressive he claims to be;
  • Former Obama HUD secretary Julian Castro, a Hispanic, might feel snubbed by his ex-boss;
  • And other white male candidates such as Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.), former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke, South Bend. Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg, ex-Colorado governor John Hickenlooper and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee might come away slighted.

Back in 2016, Obama had a much easier endorsement choice. The Democratic field was small. Biden was not running.  Sanders was not his cup of tea. And he had no strong ties to former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley. Yet, he avoided making a formal endorsement of Hillary Clinton, his former secretary of state, until after she secured the nomination in the primaries.  

“I don’t think there has ever been someone so qualified to hold this office,” Obama said in a June 2016 Hillary campaign ad.

Note that he didn’t say that about Biden, at least not yet.

Richard Benedetto is a retired USA Today White House correspondent and columnist. He now teaches politics and journalism at American University and in The Fund For American Studies program at George Mason University. Follow him on Twitter @benedettopress.