The good news for Democrats is that the chance that Bernie Sanders will be their nominee in the fall has receded. The bad news is that Joe Biden is no prize as a candidate, which adds urgency to the discussion about who can juice up his ticket as the vice-presidential choice. Party leaders are now hotly debating the topic.
A popular line of thinking is that Biden’s ticket must offer a bold choice that also ensures the kind of strong minority turnout that eluded Hillary Clinton in 2016. Jim Clyburn, the House majority whip whose last-minute endorsement of Biden delivered a South Carolina primary landslide for him, has a clear idea.
“I doubt very seriously you’ll see a Democratic slate this year without a woman on it,” Clyburn predicted to reporters. “I would love for it to be a person of color.”
Clyburn was echoed by Valerie Jarrett, who was a senior adviser to President Obama for eight years. She told CBS News that the Democratic nominee should “break with conventional wisdom and announce a running mate that’s a woman of color.”
Jarrett was then cut off, so she didn’t get the chance to say who she thought that running mate should be. But no one is closer to the Obamas. Few believe that Jarrett would have expressed the preference for a woman of color unless she thought that someone she’s been close to for nearly 30 years was in the mix: Michelle Obama.
The two have known each other for 30 years. In 1991, Jarrett, then deputy chief of staff to Chicago mayor Richard Daley, interviewed the then 26-year-old Michelle Robinson for a job. The Harvard Law School graduate impressed Jarrett. “She exuded competence, as well as character and integrity,” Jarrett wrote in her autobiography. Jarrett hired her, was introduced to her fiancé, Barack Obama, and then took the couple under her wing by introducing them to powerful elites in Chicago. So began the rise of the Obamas to the White House. Why not time for a second act?
It would certainly be popular with the Democratic base, and Biden would need the base to turn out in large numbers this November if he becomes the nominee. A poll last month by Stanford’s Hoover Institution in conjunction with the Bill Lane Center for the American West and YouGov asked 1,507 registered voters in California whom they wanted as a vice-presidential nominee.
Voters clearly expressed a desire for a woman. Michelle Obama was the choice of 31 percent of respondents. California’s Senator Kamala Harris was second, at 19 percent; Minnesota’s Senator Amy Klobuchar was third, at 18 percent; former Georgia state legislator Stacy Abrams was fourth, at 13 percent; and California venture capitalist Tom Steyer had 10 percent support.
Normally the suggestion that Michelle Obama should be the vice-presidential choice would be viewed as out of the question. Michelle Obama is famously assertive, even pushy, behind the scenes. That’s not a typical profile for a vice president. And because few people believe that an 82-year-old Joe Biden would run for a second presidential term, there would be a danger of her overshadowing him as a waiting heir apparent. And despite her popularity across wide swaths of the electorate, she has shown almost zero interest in working with Republicans or treating those she considers fools kindly.
But Biden has professed comfort with and even support for the idea. In response to a question from an Iowa voter in February, he said he would pick the former first lady “in a heartbeat,” although he suggested that both Obamas had found life after the White House “somewhat liberating.” He had previously supported the idea in an interview with Stephen Colbert, last September, before clarifying, “I’m only joking, Michelle, I’m joking.”
But was he? “The Obamas have enjoyed three years away from the glare of publicity,” a longtime Chicago ally told me. “But if Trump were to win a second term, he would complete his self-proclaimed task of dismantling everything Obama had done. If the way to guarantee that wouldn’t happen involved Michelle running, it’s not out of the question.”
And if Biden were to prefer an African American on the ticket, the other choices all present problems. Biden has said anyone he ran with would have to oppose Medicare for All, which would rule out New Jersey’s Senator Cory Booker. The name of Stacey Abrams, an unsuccessful candidate for Georgia governor in 2018, is in the mix. But she has never had experience beyond a state legislature and also has a string of ethical controversies in her past that would be fully scrutinized in the spotlight of a national race.
Senator Kamala Harris of California is a possibility. On the negative side of the ledger, she viciously attacked Biden in a debate last summer by unfairly implying that his past opposition to forced busing was racist. But Biden has rarely held a political grudge for too long. Private polls, however, show that when some black voters learn that Harris is of mixed African-American and Indian-American heritage, their enthusiasm for her wanes.
A major obstacle to a Biden-Obama ticket is, of course, that Michelle Obama has expressed no interest in the idea. When she appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live in 2018, she said she wasn’t a candidate for office: “I’ve never had any serious conversations with anyone about it because it’s not something I’m interested in or would ever do. Ever.”
Her husband agrees. “Let me tell you, there are three things that are certain in life: death, taxes, and Michelle is not running for president — that I can tell you.”
That statement makes sense to many Obama allies. They point out Michelle Obama’s longstanding disdain for the grubbiness of politics and its fundraising, the desire to protect her two daughters, and her unwillingness even to pretend to be friendly with people with whom she has disagreements. “When I had my photo taken with the Obamas after I became the first black chair of the Republican National Committee, she was pure ice,” recalls Michael Steele, now an MSNBC contributor. “There was no smile, only a glare. And I never got the photo.”
But there are countervailing arguments. As a vice-presidential nominee, she’d have to campaign for only 15 weeks — versus the two years that a presidential run takes. And she could probably avoid fundraising, if she insisted on it. Her two daughters are now both in college, and the mainstream media would largely continue to respect limits on coverage of them. And as for her alleged dislike of meeting swarms of people? “She could literally just show up at events, wave, not say much, and the crowds would love her,” a Democratic pollster told me.
Even with all that, the answer might be no. But there might be a sweetener that would prompt Michelle Obama to say yes. At an Iowa campaign stop in February, Biden was asked if he would nominate Barack Obama to the Supreme Court. After all, one previous president, William Howard Taft, made the journey from the Oval Office to the highest court, in the 1920s. Biden responded: “Yeah, I would, but I don’t think he’d do it. He’d be a great Supreme Court justice.”
But I wonder if Biden’s view is accurate. Obama, a former law-school professor, would enjoy the court’s intellectual atmosphere. And who would more appreciate being on the nation’s highest court? He would provide an alternative to Justice Clarence Thomas’s black-empowerment conservatism and could provide the swing vote needed to strike down much of the Trump administration’s legacy.
Some Democrats are so taken with the idea of putting Michelle on the ticket that they have speculated that Biden could even choose Barack himself as his running mate. But a similar idea came up in 2016, when Hillary Clinton was asked if she would pick her husband as vice president. She admitted that the idea had “crossed her mind” but then shot it down as unconstitutional. “He would be good, but he’s not eligible, under the Constitution,” she told Extra’s Mario Lopez. “He has served his two terms, and I think the argument would be that as vice president, it would not be possible for him to ever succeed to the position — at least that’s what I’ve been told.”
Everyone with whom I discussed a potential Michelle Obama candidacy said it would provide short-term pluses for a Democratic ticket by energizing it as nothing else could. Much of the media would be ecstatic and provide their normal fawning coverage of an Obama. But her presence on the ticket would probably create problems as well as opportunities for the Democrats. Regardless, party members worried about Biden’s shaky campaigning skills and performance would cling to the choice of Michelle Obama like a life raft.
Of course, most political observers with whom I spoke predicted that Biden would not pick Mrs. Obama. On the other hand, few believed that George W. Bush would pick Dick Cheney as vice president, or that John F. Kennedy would choose Lyndon Johnson as his running mate.
Stranger things have happened in politics, and in the Age of Trump, they often do.