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Obama warns of Trump’s political strengths in private talk with Biden

Former president Barack Obama, at a private lunch with President Biden earlier this summer, voiced concern about Donald Trump’s political strengths — including an intensely loyal following, a Trump-friendly conservative media ecosystem and a polarized country — underlining his worry that Trump could be a more formidable candidate than many Democrats realize.

At the lunch, held in late June at the White House residence, Obama promised to do all he could to help the president get reelected, according to two people familiar with the meeting, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversation.

That commitment was a welcome gesture for the White House at a time when Biden is eager to lock down promises of help from top Democrats, among whom Obama is easily the biggest star, for what is likely to be a hard-fought reelection race. The contents of the private conversation have not been previously reported.

President Biden is seeking reelection. Here’s what you need to know about his candidacy. (Video: Blair Guild/The Washington Post)

Obama was visiting the White House for what Biden aides described as a regular catch-up between the two men who served in the White House together for eight years. During their lunch, Obama made it clear his concerns were not about Biden’s political abilities, but rather a recognition of Trump’s iron grip on the Republican Party, according to the people.

Recent polling suggests that Trump has a significant lead over his GOP rivals and that he and Biden are essentially tied in a hypothetical rematch.

The White House said there was no specific agenda for the June 27 meeting, and people briefed on the conversation said the two presidents discussed a range of political, policy and personal matters, including updates about their families.

Tensions linger between Biden, Obama camps

Obama, who remains highly popular among Democrats, is his party’s most sought-after surrogate, although his exact role in the 2024 cycle has not yet been determined. Obama aides say the former president is likely to reprise his playbook from recent elections.

In 2020 and 2022, Obama held large rallies in swing states, hosted fundraisers for Biden and other Democratic candidates and cut ads in some of the most competitive congressional races. He also appeared in nontraditional settings aimed at connecting with young voters, such as ESPN’s Manningcast during “Monday Night Football,” collaborations with TikTok influencers and an interview during the NBA Finals.

Eric Schultz, a senior adviser to Obama, declined to comment on the White House lunch, but he said Obama will tailor his campaign activity to maximize its effect.

“We place a huge emphasis on finding creative ways to reach new audiences, especially tools that can be directly tied to voter mobilization or volunteer activations,” Schultz said in a statement. “We are deliberate in picking our moments because our objective is to move the needle.”

Obama is slated to ramp up his political activity in the coming months, starting with a fundraiser later in August in Martha’s Vineyard to benefit the National Democratic Redistricting Committee. That group, launched by Eric Holder, who was attorney general under Obama, aims to combat Republicans’ success in drawing legislative and congressional districts.

Obama is expected to begin fundraising for Biden in the fall, a person familiar with the plans said.

“President Biden is grateful for his unwavering support, and looks forward to once again campaigning side-by-side with President Obama to win in 2024 and finish the job for the American people,” TJ Ducklo, a spokesman for the Biden campaign, said in a statement.

Obama was in high demand for midterms

During lighter moments of their get-together, Obama and Biden discussed the current president’s intent to vacation at Sunnylands, a historic estate in Palm Springs, Calif. Biden had planned to stay there in August for part of his summer vacation, but the idea was scrapped because of concerns about extreme heat, according to a person with knowledge of his plans.

Obama visited Sunnylands, the former home of publisher Walter Annenberg, multiple times during his presidency and hosted a number of foreign leaders there, including Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013.

Biden aides welcomed Obama’s early commitment to help the campaign, especially given the lingering frustration among some in Biden’s circle about Obama’s role ahead of the 2016 election. Obama made clear to aides at the time that he believed Hillary Clinton, not Biden, should be the Democratic nominee to succeed him.

Obama even dispatched David Plouffe, one of his top political strategists, to reiterate for Biden the long odds he faced if he decided to run. “The president was not encouraging,” Biden wrote in his memoir, “Promise Me, Dad.”

Some Biden aides were also frustrated that Obama declined to endorse Biden in 2020 until he had the Democratic nomination sewn up. But others say that before giving his public endorsement, Obama worked behind the scenes to ensure Biden’s nomination.

And many senior Biden aides strongly rejected the notion of tension between the two camps, citing the heavy overlap among Obama and Biden staffers and noting Obama’s energetic involvement in the 2020 and 2022 elections.

“Well, there must have been an epic internal coverup operation because that supposed dynamic would be news to everyone who actually works for either person,” Andrew Bates, a White House spokesman, said in a statement. “No one has been a stronger supporter of the Biden-Harris Administration and its agenda than President Obama, his team, and veterans of the Obama-Biden Administration.”

Biden enlists potential 2024 rivals as advisers

As he left the White House after the lunch in June, Obama completed his first task to help Biden’s reelection campaign: filming a short video to help the president with online fundraising.

“Giving five or 10 bucks — whatever you can — to Joe Biden’s campaign makes a real difference,” Obama says in the video. “Let me tell you why, from a guy who’s won a couple of these. Donations from grass-roots supporters like you made up the majority of Joe’s campaign revenue last time.”

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