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Now showing: Obama and Biden together again, on video and socially distant

Then-President Obama listens as Vice President Joe Biden speaks in the White House complex in December 2016.
(Carolyn Kaster / Associated Press)

In a campaign event for the times, Joe Biden and former President Obama made a joint but socially distant video appearance Thursday to attack President Trump and inspire Democratic voters to bring back their style of government by electing Biden.

In releasing the 15-minute video conversation with Obama, Biden deployed one of his most valuable political assets: his eight-year partnership with the nation’s first Black president, one of the most popular Democrats in America.

Obama joined his former vice president, now the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, in wide-ranging reminiscences about the challenges their administration faced — and in hammering Biden’s central campaign themes: that Trump has failed as a leader at a time of crisis and Biden is uniquely experienced to replace him.

“You know what it’s like, as much as anybody, to be in the White House in a crisis,” Obama told Biden. “You are going to be able to reassemble the kind of government that cares about people and brings people together.

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“For all the specific policies that we’re going to need, more than anything it’s just that basic decency and an understanding about what’s best in America, that I think people are going to be hungry for.”

The conversation, filmed in Obama’s Washington office, marked the first time the two men had met in person since before the COVID-19 pandemic drove the 2020 campaign — and much of the U.S. economy — into lockdown to slow the spread of the virus.

The Biden campaign, which has struggled to make its digital mark and get its message to voters during the pandemic, worked to drive up viewership of the video by releasing advance excerpts Wednesday night, teasing its Thursday release like a major television production.

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The campaign bragged on Twitter even about the reach of the teaser. Rob Flaherty, the Biden campaign digital director, said the first advance excerpt alone drew more than 10 million views, and email signups for campaign releases tripled on Wednesday.

The two men, filmed sitting in leather chairs far removed from each other, criticized Trump for his handling of the coronavirus crisis and for trying to deflect responsibility for its spread.

“Can you imagine standing up when you were president and saying, ‘It’s not my responsibility, I take no responsibility’?” Biden said.

“Those words didn’t come out of our mouths while we were in office,” Obama replied.

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Biden denounced Trump as a divisive leader, harking back to the day Trump launched his 2016 presidential campaign in his Manhattan office building: “He ran by deliberately dividing people from the moment he came down that escalator. And I think people are now going, ‘I don’t want my kid growing up that way.’”

Trump, on Twitter, derided Obama for making “a commercial” for Biden after not backing him during the Democratic primary, and said he was elected because of dissatisfaction with the Obama administration: “Remember, I wouldn’t even be here if it weren’t for them. I wouldn’t be president. They did a terrible job.”

Obama deliberately stayed out of the crowded Democratic primary contest to avoid unduly swaying his party’s choice. Since Biden clinched the nomination, Obama has taken an increasingly active role in Biden’s campaign. He speaks regularly to his former vice president and has brought in a flood of campaign cash by headlining virtual fundraisers. Nearly 56% of Americans have a positive view of Obama, according to YouGov polling, compared to 41% for Trump and 49% for Biden.

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The video brought the spotlight back onto Biden’s role in the Obama administration even as he has largely ditched his primary campaign’s nostalgia-infused theme of promising a return to pre-Trump normalcy. That focus drew criticism from primary opponents and progressives who said racial and economic inequities persisted through the Obama era and that more fundamental changes are needed post-Trump.

Now, amid the pandemic, the economy’s downturn and the waves of protests against systemic racism, Biden is calling for more dramatic changes. The more forward-looking tagline for his economic agenda is “Built Back Better.”

In the new video, however, Obama indulges in some retrospective boasting about the Affordable Care Act — the legislative capstone of their administration — despite complaints from the left that it did not go far enough.

“I couldn’t be prouder of what we got done,” Obama said. “Twenty million people have health insurance that didn’t have it because of what we did.”

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Yet he and Biden always saw room for improvement, Obama added. “I always used to say the Affordable Care Act — Obamacare — it’s like a starter house,” he said. “It’s the first house you get. It’s not the end of the process. It’s the beginning of the process.”


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