‘The President Was Not Encouraging’: What Obama Really Thought About Biden

Obama and Clinton both viewed themselves as pioneers who worked their way through America’s elite colleges. Obama went to Columbia University and Harvard Law School, where he headed the law review; Clinton went from Wellesley to Yale Law School. They shared a work style as well, always sure to do their homework and arrive at a meeting prepared to get to the crux of an issue. “They do the reading,” said one former Clinton aide. “In Situation Room meetings, she had the thickest binder and had read it three times.”

Biden’s own academic career was unimpressive—he repeated the third grade, earned all Cs and Ds in his first three semesters at the University of Delaware except for As in P.E., a B in “Great English Writers” and an F in ROTC, and graduated 76th in his Syracuse Law School class of 85. He’s the first Democratic nominee since Walter Mondale in 1984 not to have an Ivy League degree. He was not a binder person, Clinton and Obama aides said.

Biden admitted as much in his 2007 memoir Promises to Keep, writing “It’s important to read reports and listen to the experts; more important is being able to read people in power.”

Biden’s tendency to blurt out whatever was on his mind rankled Obama, who wasn’t afraid to needle him for it. In his first press conference in 2009, the young president quipped “I don’t remember exactly what Joe was referring to—not surprisingly,” when asked about Biden’s assessment that there was a 30 percent chance they could get the economic stimulus package wrong.

The gaffes were only one side of the story, though. Obama warmed both to Biden’s effusive personality and his skill in implementing the administration’s $787 billion economic stimulus package, which the president had delegated to him.

Aides recall that Obama and Biden took almost polar-opposite approaches to policymaking, Obama always seeking data for the most logical or efficient outcome, while Biden told stories about how a bill would affect the working-class guy in Scranton, Pennsylvania, where he was born. When a deal was finally made, Obama would bemoan the compromises, while Biden would celebrate the points of agreement.

“Biden doesn’t come from the wonky angle of leadership,” said a senior Obama administration official. “It’s different than the last two Democratic presidents. Biden is from a different style. It’s an older style, of Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson of ‘Let’s meet, let’s negotiate, let’s talk, let’s have a deal.’”

Republicans who negotiated with the administration often came away finding Obama condescending and relying on Biden to understand their concerns.

“Negotiating with President Obama was all about the fact that he felt that he knew the world better than you,” said Eric Cantor, the Republican House majority leader from 2011 to 2014. “And he felt that he thought about it so much, that he figured it all out, and no matter what conclusion you had come to with the same set of facts, his way was right.” Biden, he said, understood that “you’re gonna have to agree to disagree about some things.”

A former Republican leadership aide described Obama’s style as “mansplaining, basically.” The person added that Biden “may not be sitting down talking about Thucydides but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have a high level of political intelligence.”

Valerie Jarrett, Obama’s close adviser and family friend, bristled at any suggestion that Obama’s negotiating style was responsible for tensions with members of Congress: “Obama was younger than many of them. He was the first Black president. He wasn’t a part of that club,” Jarrett said.

But Obama would often convey a weariness with the traditional obligations of political leadership: the glad-handing, the massaging of egos. Sometimes he couldn’t hide his disdain for part of the job he signed up for.

At the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in 2013, in front of a roomful of journalists, Obama joked, “Some folks still don’t think I spend enough time with Congress. ‘Why don’t you get a drink with Mitch McConnell?’ they ask. Really? ‘Why don’t you get a drink with Mitch McConnell?’ I’m sorry, I get frustrated sometimes.”

Biden, former aides say, didn’t get why that was funny. Biden wrote in his 2007 memoir that likely “the single most important piece of advice I got in my career” came from the late Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield (D-Mont.) who told him, “Your job here is to find the good things in your colleagues—the things their state saw—and not focus on the bad.”

Mansfield added: “And, Joe, never attack another man’s motive, because you don’t know his motive.”

Thus, Biden invested time in developing those relationships that Obama never did.

Denis McDonough, Obama’s former chief of staff, said Biden “always wanted to have had two conversations with someone before he would ask that person for something. … Once in a while you’re like, ‘Hey, can we get through those two touches so you can make the ask here,’ but he just wouldn’t do it. That’s the kind of operation he runs.”

Advance staffers recall that Obama’s speeches were arranged to be delivered alone on the stage with voters behind him, while Biden would push to include every local elected official up there with him, knowing they would love the exposure to the vice president—a chit to cash in later.

Psaki, for one, recalled that the president often saw photo lines as obligations while they might be the best part of the vice president’s day.

“His background is much more retail politics kind of person, and the president was very much sort of a wholesale kind of president,” said former Sen. Ted Kaufman, a longtime Biden adviser who is now heading up his presidential transition effort.

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