A reported meeting last month between Democratic darling Beto O’Rourke and Barack Obama has underscored the difficult position the former president finds himself in, as numerous allies and former administration members consider a 2020 White House bid and seek his counsel in the process.
Rep. O'Rourke, despite losing his highly competitive Senate race against Republican Ted Cruz in Texas, remains the subject of 2020 speculation. What was discussed during their meeting at Obama's office in Foggy Bottom is unknown, but a Washington Post report on the sit-down only added to the speculation that O’Rourke is readying his own presidential bid and perhaps looking for Obama’s blessing.
A number of former Obama aides already have encouraged him to run in 2020 – seeing in the young Texas lawmaker glimpses of what Obama represented in 2008 – and even the former president has drawn comparisons between himself and O’Rourke.
But he's hardly the only Democratic figure looking for advice -- and perhaps tacit support -- from Obama. The ex-president reportedly has met previously with a range of other potential candidates like Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. Former Tallahassee mayor and Florida gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum also reportedly just paid a visit to Obama.
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Obama's allegiances presumably would be tightest with former members of his administration, of whom former Vice President Joe Biden, former Attorney General Eric Holder, and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro are considering presidential bids.
Biden, who over the last year has been a harsh critic of President Trump and his policies, gave the clearest indication earlier this week that he is seriously considering a run.
“I'll be as straight with you as I can. I think I'm the most qualified person in the country to be president,” Biden said at a stop for his book tour in Missoula, Mont. “The issues that we face as a country today are the issues that have been in my wheelhouse, that I've worked on my whole life.”
While Biden might be justified in expecting support from his former running mate, Obama is likely to hold back when surveying the historically crowded field in the making.
“Obama will not endorse anyone in a field of 30,” Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University, said. “He can have such an impact on this race, but he won’t do anything until a clear front-runner has been decided on.”
The question may be, then, whether Obama would put his thumb on the scale later in the primary season. This potential choice became just a bit less agonizing on Thursday, when his friend and ally former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick announced he would not run for president.
Some political analysts and insiders cautioned that people shouldn’t read too much into the meeting between Obama and O’Rourke, as Obama is unlikely to back a candidate anytime soon and O’Rourke has options on the table. The Texas congressman is facing pressure to forgo running for the White House and instead challenge Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, in 2020.
“Should O’Rourke run against Cornyn, he has very good chance of winning that Senate seat,” Jillson said. “But the question arises, does O’Rourke take what is on the table right now because it may never come back.”
In an interview on “The Axe Files,” a podcast by his former chief strategist David Axelrod, Obama said that O’Rourke is not the only politician who reminds him of himself back in 2008.
“The reason I was able to make a connection with a sizeable portion of the country was because people had a sense that I said what I meant," Obama said. “We've got a number of people who are thinking about the race who I think fall in that same category.”
Holder may be one of them in Obama's eyes. He said before the midterm elections last month that while his focus at the moment was on Democratic congressional gains, he was not ruling out running in 2020.
“I’m thinking about it and what I’ve said is that I’d make a determination sometime early next year,” Holder said on CBS’s “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.”
The Obama administration members, however, are expected to make up just a fraction of the field of candidates that Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez said could be in the double digits.
Jillson predicted that Obama is nowhere close to backing a horse – or in this case, a donkey – in the race: “He may talk publicly about the field and highlight several of the leaders, but that is as far as he’ll go for a while.”