WBarack Obama and Michelle Obama visited the White House Wednesday to renew their friendship.
The result was charming, easy and cute. However, the next book will be out next week. New YorkGabriel Debenedetti is a magazine reporter. This misses out on the complex and nuanced relationship that Barack Obama and Joe Biden have. These two politicians might be the most closely related pairing of President and Vice President ever. It looked great to passersby, and even the memes. There is no way to simplify a collaborative effort with so many stakes. It is not hard to see why Biden, Obama’s close friend, never once stepped foot inside the White House Residence during his eight-year tenure as Vice President. The title of Debenedetti’s book—The Long Alliance: Joe Biden’s Imperfect Union with 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. This conversation was 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. It’s a bromance or not?
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. Under the surface of their relationship, there have been many significant ups as well as downs throughout time. They have had a profound change in their perception of one another. 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. What was their strategy?
Debenedetti: This took quite a while. Biden didn’t think that people really properly understood just how much time they were spending with each other. According to his calculations they spent seven hours per day together. This was the same for almost every day they were together over 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 did not travel to the White House once. They were both golfers, so how many times have they played together? They can both count how many times they have played golf together. Their bond was formed because of the difficulties in this world. Everything was moving very fast. This kind of tension can really bond 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. This was a man who knew Washington inside and out, as well as the workings of power. Obama relied heavily on him for his assistance in navigating that maze. Obama was perhaps a once-in-a generation politician in the area of persuading people, and building movements. However, their views on change were quite different. It was quite remarkable to see this happen in the beginning days of the Obama 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. Obama claimed that he could convince the people that this was worth it. Biden agreed to it when he saw that it was happening, regardless of whether or not he liked. Although he was useful in keeping some skeptical senators aboard, that wasn’t the way he wanted to kick off his first term.
Elliott: The same goes for AfPak review. Biden, the main naysayer, was present for much of 2009. But, that could have been intentional in certain cases.
Debenedetti: That’s right. Biden was clearly skeptical of any large scale military buildup in Afghanistan. He’d spent much time in Afghanistan. He’d been working with a lot of the stakeholders for a very long time. Obama basically sat down with him early and stated, 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.Biden was asked to expand the scope of the debate. That sometimes meant that he had to pressure test every statement made by military leaders. Sometimes this meant annoyingly asking all the questions, which Obama actually said. There are very few things more important than this that we’re going to do.Obama knew that Obama didn’t have the vast experience of dealing with military leaders and the future wars. Biden, however, was a good candidate and would reveal to Obama his true thoughts. Biden tried his best to serve Obama during the more public Oval Office meeting in the Situation room. Despite the fact that military leaders believed there was no more irritating than dealing with Biden in combat, Obama found it to be a valuable resource.
Elliott: Going forward a little bit, Biden’s Take the decisionAs of 2016, PainfulFor those who were on the outside, it was just as difficult for us. Obama had to be there for Biden. sufferingIt was a difficult time for Obama to make such a hard decision. Obama prevailed, however. You have been prompted to enter 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. Biden did feel that Obama had been a little dismissive. In essence, Obama backed Hillary Clinton behind-the scenes. This included sending her people, making a lot public praises for her, and having his aides chat to her. There was much conversation between them, before Biden said basically. Let me be clear, although I can understand why you feel the need to support Secretary Clinton, maybe it is time for us to have a conversation about this.Both of them were very hurt. 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: Let’s fast forward to four years. Both you and me were surprised that Biden decided to make the 2020 race a third term for Obama. How did that happen? Biden’s journey to this point. Obama’s response to the situation? Biden ran as his own man. It looked like that was how it began. And then all of a sudden, he couldn’t talk about enough about how Barack and me achieved so many things.
Debenedetti. Then, during the general elections, he took a different turn and spoke about how he wanted to make a huge amount of changes while also trying to restore the country from Trump. It took several different paths. 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. However, Biden was drawing a lot of criticism from his rivals. He was seeing on the debate stage that a lot people were praising the Obama administration’s record in areas like healthcare and immigration. Biden found this very troubling because it was clear that they were a highly 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 spoke with his staff and stated, Let’s just keep defending Obama in mind. Let’s just keep in mind that I was always the Obama guy.
Obama had a long and interesting relationship with him, but he wasn’t the only one. Obama said the following to his campaign candidates: You can use publicly available images of us, but don’t make it seem as if I’m endorsing you.Obama believed it was kind of funny, let’s just say sometimes humorous, that those who were criticizing him turned around when primaries were up where more voters thought highly of Obama. This included South Carolina with a large Black electorate, that is very fond of Obama.
Obama and others around him felt that Biden had gone a bit far. They suggested support from the former president. He asked them to turn it down. He was speaking mainly, however. Of course, I’m still popular. This is what real Democrats—not just people who live on Twitter—think about politics. More than anything, they desire the restoration of Obama’s years.
Elliott: If it’s her time, can Vice President Harris claim a relationship similar to Biden?
Debenedetti: They’re just very different relationships. Biden wanted to find the right partner, he said. His Biden. Obama advised Biden not to view it this way. 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 began having weekly lunches. What is the number of times they have done this every year? My last count was five.
Elliott: Thank you for your interesting reporting on how closely President Obama is following 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. You wonder what is happening?
Debenedetti: This was certainly truer early on. Because he was curious about the future of the government, he started to get a lot more intel. This was something he did a lot while assisting Biden. He talks with Biden on occasion and also speaks 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. Although he is not trying to retire, he is actually doing so to try to find a retirement that’s familiar to him.
Biden and Henoch still speak every other week. For those calls, there are no assistants. Nobody is given a briefing on the topic of these conversations. 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: I am so grateful for your time. Congratulations on your great book.
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