When Barack and Michelle Obama returned to the White House on Wednesday for their first joint visit since leaving office in early 2017, a lot of official Washington revived the mythical contours of the congenial relationship that the former President enjoyed with the current one.
It was cute for sure, and easy no doubt. But, according to a book out next week from New York magazine correspondent Gabriel Debenedetti, such a shorthand misses the complicated and nuanced relationship between Barack Obama and Joe Biden, two political figures who might be the closest pairing of a President and Vice President in history. Sure, it looked like a classic bromance to the passerby and the memes made themselves. But no collaboration with so much at stake can be reduced to an easy sketch. After all, if Obama and Biden were such close pals, why, then, did Biden never once in eight years as Vice President step foot in the White House residence? The title of Debenedetti’s book—The Long Alliance: The Imperfect Union of Joe Biden and Barack Obama—rightly describes a relationship that was messier than many realized.
I spoke with Debenedetti on Wednesday, just after Biden welcomed the Obamas back to the White House to unveil their official portraits—an event delayed because then-President Donald Trump simply refused to follow protocol and welcome his predecessor back for the most basic of civilities. The conversation has been lightly edited.
Elliott: We just watched the Obamas’ portraits unveiled at the White House, and a lot of us are going to shorthand that to a bromance. But is it a bromance?
Debenedetti: It’s not exactly a bromance. There’s no doubt that they certainly have the closest relationship between any President and Vice President, or President and former President in modern history. Beneath the surface, this relationship has had very serious ups and downs over time, both personal and especially political. Their conception of each other has changed dramatically. They’ve known each other for 20 years and these are two men who come from very different worlds, have very different life experiences and very different experiences in Washington, and their presidencies as a result are turning out to be different in interesting ways.
Elliott: They’re two complicated men. Simple men don’t become Presidents. How did they navigate that?
Debenedetti: It took a lot of time. Biden didn’t think that people really properly understood just how much time they were spending with each other. By his calculations, they were spending seven hours a day together. And that was more or less every day going on for eight years. They had their weekly lunches but they weren’t close buddies in the way that many people might expect based on the way that they talk about it publicly.
Biden never went up once to the White House residence. How many times did they golf together, despite the fact that they are both avid golfers? You can count on one hand how many times they golfed together. The reality is that they bonded because the world was a very difficult place. Things were happening very quickly. That kind of tension really bonds people. But the idea that they see the world the same way, that they’re buddies who are just texting, having a great time together all the time, that’s just not reality.
Elliott: It seems like it, they were just on completely different pages about how Washington worked, but that actually made for a more successful Obama administration, didn’t it?
Debenedetti: One thing that frustrates Biden to this day—and certainly people around him—is that it’s easy to forget that yes, obviously he’s best known as the former Vice President and now the President, but he had been in the Senate for 36 years. That was a man who really knew how Washington worked and was very familiar with the halls of power. Obama relied on him to help him navigate that for quite some time. Obama was a perhaps once-in-a-generation politician when it came to the outside game, when it came to persuading people and when it came to building a movement, but their conceptions of change were very different. You saw that play out sometimes pretty remarkably in the earliest days of the administration. Obama talked about wanting to do a massive healthcare overhaul, and Biden essentially said he didn’t think that that was a good idea at that point. Biden didn’t think that there would be the will on Capitol Hill to do this amount of massive change. But Obama said he had the power to convince people that this is worth doing now. Biden went along with it once he realized that that was going to happen, whether he liked it or not. And he ended up being useful in keeping some skeptical senators on board, but it was not how he would have kicked off his own first term.
Elliott: Also the AfPak review. For much of 2009, Biden was the naysayer in the room, but that was by design in some cases, right?
Debenedetti: That’s right. Obviously, Biden was very, very skeptical of the idea of a large military build up in Afghanistan. He had spent a lot of time there. He’d been working with a lot of the stakeholders for a very long time. And Obama essentially sat him down early on and said, Listen, I’m gonna get a lot of pressure on this from the generals, but also from people within the administration like Bob Gates, the Secretary of Defense, and Hillary Clinton, the Secretary of State. And he asked Biden to stretch the terms of debate in the room. And so sometimes that meant pressure-testing every single thing that the military leaders said. Sometimes that meant being annoying and asking every single last question, but Obama essentially said There are very few things more important than this that we’re going to do. In that sense, Obama was open-eyed about the fact that he was not someone who was coming into this with the massive amount of experience dealing with military leaders or the future of wars. But Biden was, and Biden in private would tell Obama what he really thought. But in those more public meetings in the Oval Office, in the Situation Room, he tried hard to be a useful resource for Obama. Military leaders thought that there was nothing more annoying than having to deal with Biden, but Obama appreciated it.
Elliott: Going forward a little bit, Biden’s decision in 2016 was as painful for those of us on the outside as it was on the inside. It was not easy for Obama to watch Biden suffering through such grief and a really difficult decision. Ultimately, though Obama stepped in and did what was best for the Biden family—even if the Biden family didn’t appreciate it at the moment.
Debenedetti: That’s certainly what Obama thought he was doing. He thought that Biden simply couldn’t do the 2016 campaign, not with what he was going through with the death of his son. That said, Biden also felt that Obama was being a bit dismissive of him politically by essentially backing Hillary Clinton behind the scenes, sending people to work for her, having a lot of his aides talk to her, praising her publicly all while his Vice President was sitting right there. So there was a lot of conversation between the two of them before Biden basically said, Listen, I understand you decided that you need to back Secretary Clinton, but maybe we should talk about this. It was very painful for both of them. It took a very long time for Biden to realize that he ultimately couldn’t sustain a campaign, couldn’t do it in the amount of time that was needed, and he couldn’t do it emotionally. But that was really a moment in which their relationship changed because that was a moment of intense political—but also personal—feeling for both of them.
Elliott: Fast forward four years. I think you and I were both surprised when Biden moved to treat the 2020 race like a third term for Obama. What happened there? How did Biden get there? How did Obama react to it? It seemed like it started as Biden was running as his own man. And then all of a sudden, he couldn’t talk about enough about how Barack and I accomplished so much.
Debenedetti: And then during the general election, he pivoted another direction and talked about the massive amount of change that he hoped he could make while also restoring the country from Trump. So it took a few different turns. It’s important to remember the backstory, which is that Obama wasn’t endorsing Biden because he wanted to remain neutral and was skeptical that Biden was going to be the obvious next step for the Democratic Party. But Biden was getting a lot of flack from his opponents. And he was also seeing that on the debate stage, a lot of people were going after the Obama administration for its record on issues like immigration and healthcare. Now, this really bothered Biden because he genuinely did feel like they had been a wildly successful administration.
But Biden also knew, based on his campaign’s research and its polling, that people didn’t necessarily know a lot of the specifics about what he had done as Vice President. Democratic voters appreciated him, but didn’t know a lot about the specifics. They knew he was by Obama’s side for so long. Biden sat down with his team and said, Listen, we need to just lean in on defending Obama. And on me being the Obama guy all along.
He was not the only person who had an interesting relationship with the Obama administration. During the campaign, Obama had always said to candidates, You can use publicly available images of us, but don’t make it seem as if I’m endorsing you. Obama thought it was sort of interesting, shall we say, sometimes hilarious that some of these people who had been criticizing him then turned around as primaries came up in which voters thought more highly of Obama, including South Carolina, which has a very heavily Black electorate that looks very highly upon Obama.
There were moments when Obama or people around him thought that Biden was going a little bit too far and suggesting support from the former President. And then he asked them to dial it back. But for the most part, he was saying, Of course, I’m still popular. This is what real Democrats—not just people who live on Twitter—think about politics. They want a restoration of the Obama years much more than they want some sort of radical revolution.
Elliott: When it comes to her time, will Vice President Harris be able to claim a similar relationship with Biden?
Debenedetti: They’re just very different relationships. Biden sought to find a partner who, in his words, could be his Biden. Obama counseled him not to think of it in those terms. Their relationship was just fundamentally going to have to be different, because what was the proposition of Biden as Obama’s partner? He was a man who’d been in Washington for a million years, who had the experience on Capitol Hill, who had the experience in foreign policy, and who could help guide Obama in decision making. Biden may like Harris’ instincts, but at the end of the day, she is not someone who has more experience in any of these topics than him. So he’s not going to rely on her for advice. There’s no easier way to sum up the difference in their relationship than that Biden and Obama had their weekly lunches. Harris and Biden started off having those weekly lunches. But how many times have they done it this year? Five is my last count.
Elliott: Finally, I was surprised at your reporting about how closely President Obama continues to follow politics. I’d assumed he’d checked out of the game, but you report he’s on the phone with former members of his team, still getting backdoor intel into and out of the Biden orbit. What is going on there?
Debenedetti: It certainly was more true early on. He was getting a lot of intel partially because he was interested in the way the administration was shaping up. And this was also something that he was doing a lot during the campaign when he was helping Biden out. These days, he talks to Biden himself on occasion, and he also talks to Ron Klain, the chief of staff.
Now, I don’t want to make it seem as if he is watching so closely and following every tiny internal debate to the point of trying to weigh in. He genuinely is trying to enjoy a sort of retirement, though not one that is recognizable to most people.
He and Biden still do talk every few weeks. There are no aides on the phone for those conversations. No one is briefed on what those conversations are about. Much like those lunches that they had during their time in office together, those conversations are not political or policy conversations so much as they are check-ins and gut-checks and chances for them to just talk through what they’re working on. That’s because there aren’t a lot of people who can have that conversation with the President. You could argue that Obama and Biden are the only two people who could possibly understand what each other are going through, at least in terms of the day-to-day governing with this version of the Republican Party and this version of the Democrats they’re working with.
Elliott: Thank you so much for your time. And congratulations on a great book.
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Write to Philip Elliott at firstname.lastname@example.org