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1 Jul 2023
Myah WardSam Stein

NextImg:Get a text from Obama? How POTUS 44 is looking to shape 2024

The world’s been seeing a bit more of POTUS 44 of late.

Former President Barack Obama was at the White House for lunch with President Joe Biden this week. On Biden’s social media channels, Obama featured in two new videos urging people to donate to the Biden campaign. Then there was a fundraising text issued under Obama’s name asking supporters to pitch in for his “friends Joe and Kamala.”

At a fundraiser in New York on Thursday, Obama was on Biden’s mind, too.

“By the way, I got to tell you, I had lunch with Barack the other day. And I was kidding him; I said, ‘Every time I hear…’ — he’s helping out a lot — I said, ‘Every time I hear “Hail to the Chief,” I turn around and look for you, wondering where the hell you are,’” Biden said.

Obama’s heightened visibility this week wasn’t just an effort to gin up money in the final days before the end-of-quarter campaign fundraising deadline. It offered a subtle glimpse into how he and Biden world writ large are thinking about his role in 2024.

Confidantes and aides expect Obama’s political appearances to be strategic, with an emphasis on leaning in at opportune moments and with an eye on tackling some of the political work that Biden has trouble with. That means reaching out to younger voters, enlisting the next generation of Democratic leaders and spreading his and Biden’s message on unconventional platforms in addition to the campaign events, fundraisers and rallies.

“We are deliberate in picking our moments. And that is based on a strategy of when we can drive impact,” said Eric Schultz, Obama’s longtime spokesperson.

Obama aides say that there was nothing particularly new about his activity this week. The former president ramps up his visibility around the work he does for his various political and nonprofit ventures. And in this case, the Obama Foundation recently hosted a leaders forum in Athens.

But there also was an impending fundraising deadline for the presidential campaign back home, for which Obama came in handy. The former president was a factor in the Biden campaign’s deadline blitz, which included more than 20 fundraisers across the country, a campaign official told POLITICO. The campaign has leaned on effective fundraisers and surrogates with strong donor networks like Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Govs. J.B. Pritzker of Illinois and Gavin Newsom of California, as it seeks to raise money in the absence of a competitive primary and with donor fatigue still lingering from an intense midterm cycle.

The Obama-Biden pairing was some of the 2020 campaign’s best-performing content, a campaign official said. So while at the White House for lunch with his former No. 2, Obama filmed the two videos, speaking directly to grassroots voters, a movement that the former president helped propel.

But Obama wasn’t just mingling with Biden recently. He has also met with younger Democratic lawmakers on the Hill and sat for interviews with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour and comedian Hasan Minhaj.

The latter was viewed, in particular, as a way to reach a non-traditional (read: young) audience that isn’t always engaged with national political leaders. And by midweek, his camp was blown away by the audience metrics: an estimated 27.3 million views across all platforms.

“I was back home in Chicago and my young cousins who are in their 20s, they all saw the Hasan Minhaj interview. They didn’t all see anything about the four days that we were in Greece, but they saw that,” said Valerie Jarrett, CEO of the Obama Foundation and a former Obama senior adviser. “It’s an example of just meeting people where they are … we go where they go.”

Such an approach is one Obama took frequently in the White House when, among other things, he went to Alaska with Bear Grylls, sat with Zach Galifianakis for his show “Between Two Ferns” and ate dinner with the late Anthony Bourdain in Hanoi for his show “Parts Unknown.”

“If you can connect with young people in a way that feels authentic, that’s going to make a real difference,” Schultz said.

For Biden, reaching these audiences could prove critical. As Democratic pollster John Della Volpe laid out in a recent piece, when a Democratic presidential nominee secures 60 percent of the youth vote, the party is successful.

But the political environment is much more challenging than it was four years ago when it comes to young voters, whose moods are sour, said Della Volpe, director of polling at Harvard’s Institute of Politics. While youth voters’ political views align with Biden and Democratic priorities more than ever: relative to spring 2019, fewer are likely to vote; few identify as Democrats; fewer are following political news closely; and fewer are “likely to believe that politics is a meaningful way to create change in the system.”

“There’s this big disconnect between a set of values that I believe align between the White House, the Democratic Party and younger people, but it’s being lost in translation. Those values aren’t being translated into support for Democrats,” Volpe said, urging campaigns to invest in reaching young voters.

The throughline of Obama’s post-presidency is to “support and lift up” the next generation of leaders, Schultz said. A lot of this work is done through his nonprofit, the Obama Foundation, which aides say is taking up most of his time since leaving the White House.

Whether Obama is in Greece, stopping by a gathering of musicians called Guitars over Guns in Chicago’s South Side, or meeting in D.C. with his team to discuss plans for the Obama Presidential Center coming in 2025, Jarrett said it’s “where his energy and heart is right now.”

Since 2018, the foundation has launched leadership programs in Africa, Asia and Europe, and Obama just approved the final selection of U.S. leaders. Members of the three cohorts came together at the forum in Athens last month.

Every time they travel, Jarrett said, she’s asked about the state of U.S. democracy and what it means for the rest of the world. The need to send such a message on the erosion of democracy wasn’t on Obama’s radar when he left office, Jarrett said.

Obama and Biden often discuss this when they convene. While the president has turned his attention to democracy, Obama has ramped up his own work on the issue, holding forums to discuss disinformation and other forces he believes have threatened the state of democracy in the U.S. and around the world.

“The reason I’m optimistic is because I believe, particularly as I meet young people around the world, there is still a fundamental belief in dignity and worth of individuals and their agency and determining what their lives are like. I think that’s what young people want,” Obama said in his sitdown with Amanpour. “But our existing democratic institutions are creaky, and we’re going to have to reform them.”