The Morning Jolt


When Is Obama Going to Speak Up?

President Barack Obama listens to a question during his last press conference at the White House, January 18, 2017. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

As I heard at the doctor’s office this morning, “Happy Monday-Tuesday.” On the menu today: Why former president Barack Obama has been quiet during the most intensely divided Democratic primary in recent memory; gun-control advocates take it on the chin in Virginia; a new batch of data gives a clearer sense of the fatality rate of the coronavirus; and remembering America’s easily forgotten but still significant presidents.

The Silence of Barack Obama

For the last six weeks or so, we’ve been watching Joe Biden metaphorically drown, while former president Barack Obama files his nails and leans against a life preserver on the dock. Mike Bloomberg is running an ad that really makes it sound like Obama and the former New York City mayor were close allies and longtime buddies, and depending upon your point of view, maybe even implies an endorsement. (Obama and Bloomberg were not close allies and did not have a particularly warm relationship. In fact, in 2016, Bloomberg suggested Obama had failed to unify the country along racial lines.)

One phone call from Obama — either to Bloomberg himself, or to the media — could get that ad taken out of circulation pretty quickly. The fact that the commercial has been airing for two weeks suggests Obama has no real problem with it.

Back when Biden announced, Obama at least offered some kind words through a spokeswoman. “President Obama has long said that selecting Joe Biden as his running mate in 2008 was one of the best decisions he ever made,” Obama spokeswoman Katie Hill said. “He relied on the vice president’s knowledge, insight, and judgment throughout both campaigns and the entire presidency. The two forged a special bond over the last 10 years and remain close today.” (Dear friends: If you need a statement of support, I will release a brief written description of our many years of close companionship through my staff.)

In New York Magazine, Gabriel Debenedetti reports that Obama’s silence is a strategic move designed to ensure he can help unite the party this summer:

With the race looking more and more likely to grow bitter and messy, and maybe even wind up in a contested convention, the former president and those around him are increasingly sure he will need to play a prominent role in bringing the party back together and calming its tensions later this summer, including perhaps in Milwaukee, where the party’s meeting is scheduled to be held in July. So he is committed to not allowing his personal thoughts to dribble out in the meantime, directly or via leaks, conscious of how any sense that he’s taking sides in intraparty disputes could rock the primary in the short run and potentially undermine his ability to play this larger role in the months ahead.

With each week and Sanders’s continued rise, I’ve been thinking about this report from Ryan Lizza, writing in Politico, back on November 26: “There is one potential exception: Back when Sanders seemed like more of a threat than he does now, Obama said privately that if Bernie were running away with the nomination, Obama would speak up to stop him. (Asked about that, a spokesperson for Obama pointed out that Obama recently said he would support and campaign for whoever the Democratic nominee is.)”

It’s now mid-February, and the results of the latest national poll from Marist/NPR/PBS are: Bernie Sanders 31 percent, Michael Bloomberg 19 percent, Joe Biden 15 percent, Elizabeth Warren 12 percent, Amy Klobuchar 9 percent, Pete Buttigieg 8 percent. (How odd is it that the current leader in delegates is running sixth nationally?) If Sanders isn’t running away with the nomination, he’s starting to get close. If Obama’s going to object to Sanders, now is the time to do it. But according to the Debenedetti report, he’s not going to.

A huge component of the Biden campaign is the Obama aura; perhaps the funniest line in the past year from Saturday Night Live was Woody Harrelson’s impression of Biden — “in closing, I’d like to say, just one more time . . . Barack!” Perhaps one of the factors in Biden’s slide is Democratic voters recognition that while Biden constantly invokes Obama and is more or less pitching himself as the next best thing to a third term, there is not much indication that Obama himself sees a Biden presidency that way.

In fact, when you look at anecdotes such as this one, buried at the back of an August New York Times story . . .

In March, Mr. Obama took the unusual step of summoning Mr. Biden’s top campaign advisers, including the former White House communications director Anita Dunn and Mr. Biden’s longtime spokeswoman, Kate Bedingfield, to his Washington office for a briefing on the campaign’s digital and communications strategy with members of his own staff, including his senior adviser, Eric Schultz.

When they were done, Mr. Obama offered a pointed reminder, according to two people with knowledge of his comments:

Win or lose, they needed to make sure Mr. Biden did not “embarrass himself” or “damage his legacy” during the campaign.

. . . you start to wonder if Obama thought a Biden presidential campaign was such a good idea.

Should former presidents remain neutral in their party’s primaries? We haven’t had this issue in our era of quasi-dynastic politics. No one doubted that George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush preferred Jeb Bush, and no one doubted that Bill Clinton preferred Hillary Clinton. Former presidents have viewpoints and ideologies and values and agendas, and undoubtedly they think some candidates would be better in the job than others. If they think nominating a particular candidate would be a terrible mistake, why shouldn’t they speak out?

Gun-Control Advocates Get Kicked in the Teeth in Virginia

Another case of a newly elected majority overestimating its mandate and not checking to ensure that its agenda is popular enough in all of its members’ districts: After a great deal of hype, four Virginia senate Democrats joined senate Republicans in voting to send back a bill expanding the definition of “assault weapons” for review, meaning it won’t be considered for at least another year. Among those Democrats? Creigh Deeds, who was the party’s gubernatorial nominee back in 2009.

My friend Cam Edwards has a good roundup of all of the various gun-control proposals that have, so far, fallen short this year in the Virginia state legislature. The election of a narrow Democratic legislative majority in both houses did not quite translate into a narrow majority for gun control, or at least not for these measures.

The Coronavirus Fatality Rate Is . . . 2.3 Percent.

Gee, why would people feel confused by the coverage of the coronavirus?

For several weeks, we’ve been getting coverage with headlines such as, “The flu is a far bigger threat to most people in the US than the Wuhan coronavirus.” And while that was statistically true enough, the coronavirus was just getting started. Besides that, most Americans know to get their flu shots and those that do get the flu get through it just fine with fluids and bed rest.

This morning, the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention offered a new analysis of data:

An analysis of 44,672 coronavirus patients in China whose diagnoses were confirmed by laboratory testing has found that 1,023 had died by Feb. 11. That’s a fatality rate of 2.3 percent. Figures released on a daily basis suggest the rate has further increased in recent days.

That is far higher than the mortality rate of the seasonal flu, with which the new coronavirus has sometimes been compared. In the United States, flu fatality rates hover around 0.1 percent.

Yes, if you live in the United States, you’re much more likely to get “regular” flu, but if you do catch it, the odds of it killing you are 1 in 1,000. If, God forbid, you catch the coronavirus, the chances of it killing you are 23 in 1,000, based upon what we know now.

ADDENDA: Monday has come and gone, but you will want to listen to yesterday’s edition of the Three Martini Lunch podcast, paying tribute to four of America’s less-remembered but still significant presidents: Thomas Whitmore, Jonathan Fowler, James Bennett, and Charles Logan.


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