March 28, 2024 - 4:00pm

Reports are surfacing that yet another former president is entering the political fray. Ahead of a fundraising event for Joe Biden in New York this evening featuring Barack Obama, the New York Times ran a story on the former president holding regular calls with the incumbent, as well as senior White House staff. “This level of engagement illustrates Mr. Obama’s support for Mr. Biden,” the article reads, “but also what one of his senior aides characterized as Mr. Obama’s grave concern that Mr. Biden could lose to former president Donald J. Trump.”

Since Time magazine ran an extensive piece about Biden’s presidential campaign remaining stuck in the mud — a kind of dropping of the mask by the Democratic establishment — CNN, the Washington Post, and USA Today have all run coverage on Obama’s new involvement in the campaign.

The media story has been centred on America’s greatest political talent coming to rescue an old ally — and saving democracy in the process. The problem is that this narrative implies that Biden, the President of the United States and a veteran with five decades of political experience, is unable to manage the pressure on his own.

In the context of the chip on the shoulder Biden carries towards his Democratic predecessor in the Oval Office, this is revealing. Axios recently reported that the President uses Obama as a yardstick to measure his accomplishments. “Obama would be jealous,” Biden reportedly says when referencing an achievement. Some of the resentment no doubt goes back to Obama choosing Hillary Clinton over Biden — his own vice president — as the presumptive Democratic nominee in 2016.

This dynamic extends beyond the two presidents, as White House staff and the Biden campaign team are also reportedly feeling the weight of Obama’s entrance. “We do have too many Obama people who don’t care about Joe Biden,” a former White House official told Insider.

Putting aside the rivalries, the unanswered question is what difference the ex-president can make. While adding his celebrity wattage to the ticket is certainly helpful, Obama has no electoral experience dealing with the political phenomenon that is Donald Trump.

According to this week’s reports, some of Obama’s influence included pushing the Biden team to ramp up attacks on Trump. Yet it’s difficult to understand what Obama could contribute to a political knife fight against Trump, a candidate who has both broken and rewritten all the rules of American electoral politics.

The bigger picture here points to the obvious: as President and leader of his party, Biden is, at least in theory, the source of all top-level political strategy decision-making, including for the election campaign. Obama stepping in indicates that this is no longer entirely true.

What we’re really witnessing might be something more self-evident: the party leadership is slipping out of Biden’s hands and into Obama’s. With this much access to the campaign, Team Obama could be in position to make key campaign appointments — the assumption being that those staffers will go on to play a significant role in the next Biden administration. This shift of at least some of Biden’s presidential authority to Obama could not take place without the approval of the Democratic Party leadership, which offers a glimpse into how serious the party thinks the situation — and the President’s inability to manage it — really is.

While it’s almost natural for Democrats (and parts of the media) to spin Obama’s new role in the campaign as both a welcome boost and vote of confidence, the reality is that it signals a power vacuum so serious that the prospect of trampling a sitting president’s authority — and, crucially, undermining public perception of that authority right when he needs to emphasise it — is enough of a reason for the former president to hold back. It indicates that the man currently in the White House is not empowered the way presidents are. Meanwhile, the one who used to occupy that office is not quite as settled into political retirement as he might seem.