As Obamas visit White House on Wednesday, tensions linger between Obama, Biden camps

Washington Post photo by Demetrius Freeman
President Joe Biden and former president Barack Obama at the White House in April after an event celebrating the Affordable Care Act.

WASHINGTON – When former president Barack Obama returned to the White House for the first time in April, he received a hero’s welcome from Democrats. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi kissed Obama’s hand. White House staffers eagerly angled for photos. And Democrats celebrated the Affordable Care Act, the former president’s signature domestic-policy accomplishment.

Then Obama opened his remarks by saying, “Thank you, Vice President Biden.”

President Joe Biden laughed and saluted, and Obama walked away from the podium and gave Biden a hug, vowing he was just making a joke. “That was all set up,” he said.

But for some longtime Biden staffers, the zinger punctured the celebratory mood. They saw the quip, intentional or not, as part of a pattern of arrogance from Obama and a reminder of the disrespect many felt from Obama’s cadre of aides toward Biden.

None of that is expected to be on public display Wednesday when Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama return to the White House for a ceremony to unveil their official White House portraits. Instead, the atmosphere is expected to be similar to a family reunion, filled with stories, jokes and affection.

Beneath that jovial atmosphere, however, is long-simmering tension, and even some jealously, between the circles around Obama and Biden – the two Democratic presidents of the past 15 years and the ones who bracketed what Democrats see as the disastrous tenure of Donald Trump.

Some Biden loyalists are resentful that Obama didn’t throw his weight behind Biden’s presidential aspirations, complaining that even now Obama’s team does not fully respect Biden. Obama loyalists are frustrated that Biden’s aides regularly boast of how they have avoided the mistakes of the Obama White House, such as failing to sufficiently tout the president’s accomplishments.

Democratic leaders say they urgently need both presidents to bolster party turnout in the upcoming midterms. Obama is revered by many in the Democratic base, while Biden retains a strong appeal to Democratic centrists and has drawing power as the sitting president.

Since Jimmy Carter invited Gerald Ford back to the White House in 1978, nearly every sitting president has hosted a portrait unveiling ceremony for his immediate predecessor, regardless of party, often providing an occasion for bipartisan bonhomie. When Obama hosted George W. Bush, Bush joked that Obama could now gaze at his portrait in difficult moments and ask himself, “What would George do?”

Former president Donald Trump skipped that tradition, setting up Wednesday’s event, and it appears unlikely that Biden will host the unveiling of Trump’s portrait.

Earlier paintings of the Obamas were unveiled in February 2018 by the National Portrait Gallery, including the striking image by Kehinde Wiley of the former president floating amid a sea of leaves. The portraits unveiled Wednesday will hang in the White House itself.

For much of the Obama presidency, the relationship between him and Biden was hailed as a “bromance.” They had lunch every week. Obama presented Biden with the Presidential Medal of Freedom and called him “the best vice president America’s ever had.”

“I think they had a very rich partnership during the Obama administration,” said David Axelrod, a former senior adviser to Obama who will be in attendance Wednesday. “I think it would be a mistake to suggest otherwise.”

But aides say the “bromance” was always exaggerated. The two had a strong working relationship and a personal friendship, but aides also noted that the men come from different generations (a 19-year age gap), different backgrounds (Biden served 36 years in the Senate; Obama served less than four) and have different styles (Obama is a gifted orator and deep thinker; Biden is the consummate retail politician who often goes off script).

Those differences erupted early in the 2008 presidential campaign, when Biden said about Obama, then his rival in the Democratic primary, “You’ve got the first mainstream African American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy,” a comment for which he apologized.

Yet when Obama captured the nomination, he turned to Biden as his running mate, needing a partner with experience and gravitas – a move that instantly made Biden a major national figure and arguably set him on the path to the presidency.

And the relationship benefited both men. Biden took on tough assignments throughout Obama’s presidency. And his connection to Obama helped him secure the nomination in 2020, although Obama’s decision to delay endorsing his former partner until after Biden became the nominee created some awkward moments.

In June 2019, as Biden was running for the Democratic nomination, he tweeted a picture of “Joe” and “Barack” friendship bracelets, writing, “Happy #BestFriendsDay to my friend, @BarackObama.” The post was widely mocked, and Axelrod tweeted at the time, “This is a joke, right?”

Once Biden won the presidency, many Obama alumni, including some who publicly supported other candidates or sat on the sidelines, came rushing to his side. Some longtime members of Biden’s inner circle still view those officials with caution, unsure if they are sufficiently loyal to the sitting president.

In particular, there is still some resentment in Biden’s camp about former Obama White House officials who saw the then-vice-president as a potential political liability. Many remember that some Obama aides tried to argue Biden should be dropped from the ticket in 2012. And there is bitterness toward the Obama staffers who worked to keep Biden from running for president in 2016 so Hillary Clinton would have a path to the nomination.

A White House official dismissed “the idea of any tension” between the two camps.

“President Biden and Dr. Biden are honored to have former president Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama back to the White House for the unveiling of their portraits, which will hang on the walls of the White House forever as reminders of the power of hope and change,” press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Tuesday.

“President Obama has also described the office of the presidency as a relay race,” Eric Schultz, a spokesman for Obama, said in a statement. “And there’s nobody President Obama would rather see with the baton right now than Joe Biden.”

Among the former Obama administration officials expected to be in attendance: Rahm Emanuel, who served as Obama’s first chief of staff and is now ambassador to Japan; Jack Lew, former chief of staff and former treasury secretary; Eric Holder, former attorney general; Tim Geithner, former treasury secretary; Kathleen Sebelius, former health and human services secretary; Tom Donilon, former national security adviser; Pete Rouse, former acting chief of staff; and Arne Duncan, former education secretary.

A host of current White House officials who served under Obama will be there as well. That highlights another source of tension: Some longtime Biden hands have felt pushed aside in favor of those closer to Obama.

Such current top officials as domestic policy chief Susan Rice, Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough and former White House press secretary Jen Psaki, for example, had senior roles under Obama but had never worked directly for Biden before joining his administration.

“All of a sudden the people who were nowhere to be found for Biden in 2015 and 2016 found their way to the front of the line when he made it over the finish line in 2020,” one Biden administration official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly.

A White House official countered that Ted Kaufman, Biden’s longtime chief of staff in the Senate, set up the transition, and many of Biden’s closest advisers – Ron Klain, Mike Donilon, Bruce Reed, Steve Ricchetti, Antony Blinken, Kate Bedingfield – have worked for the president for years or, in some cases, decades.

Meanwhile, some in Obama’s orbit were irked by statements from Biden officials that they were avoiding the mistakes of the Obama years. In particular, many Democrats felt that the Obama team had embraced a stimulus plan that was too small, and then did too little to tout the then-president’s accomplishments.

When Biden’s own relief package passed, the president and his aides promised to be much more aggressive in selling it. Biden said in March 2021 that Obama had been “so modest” about taking a “victory lap” after signing the 2009 rescue package and that Democrats “paid a price” in the 2010 midterm elections.

Months later, some Obama aides say that despite such talk, there is little evidence the public appreciates, or even knows about, Biden’s American Rescue Plan.

But both Obama and Biden aides say the friendship between the two presidents is genuine, and Obama’s aides say the former president will campaign for Democratic candidates ahead of the midterms.

Obama also has three fundraisers scheduled this month. He will appear in New York City with Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) to raise money for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, in San Diego with Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and in San Francisco for the Democratic National Committee.

Obama and Biden have stayed in touch throughout Biden’s presidency. Obama advisers say the former president has been gratified to see Biden’s recent string of legislative successes, which he sees in some ways as building on his own. The two men last spoke when Obama called Biden to congratulate him on the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, an Obama aide said.

“This is a BFD,” Obama wrote on Twitter after Biden signed the act into law, in a nod to Biden’s hot-mic comment at the 2010 signing ceremony for the Affordable Care Act.

Yet the rivalry between supporters of the two major Democratic leaders of the past 15 years has already extended into the arena of presidential legacy. Early debates are unfolding over which president has a more-historic domestic policy achievement – Obama’s health-care law or Biden’s climate and health bill.