Lingering tensions between the Biden and Obama teams broke into the open this week when the former president’s close political adviser David Axelrod said President Biden should consider stepping aside from reelection for the sake of the country.
Former Biden White House chief of staff and longtime Biden confidant Ron Klain shot back, complaining about past pointed criticisms of the president from Axelrod.
White House aides brushed aside Axelrod’s comments, pointing out former President Obama was in a difficult polling situation a year ahead of his reelection race and still won.
But the criticism, along with media attention on a New York Times/Sienna College poll showing Biden behind Trump in five swing states, which prompted Axelrod’s remarks, was clearly an annoyance.
The White House released a memo days later criticizing the media’s focus on one poll a year out from the election, while noting polls and pundits had predicted a 2022 “red wave” for the midterms that never materialized.
A Biden White House alum described a collective Biden World “eye roll” when a “Democratic talking head” makes remarks like Axelrod’s.
“Any time someone lights up the White House, the campaign, or the administration but doesn’t have to do any real work, there’s sort of an ‘eye roll’ effect. Like maybe roll up your sleeves and get in the arena,” the source said.
The alum, who asked for anonymity to speak candidly, said Axelrod should have kept his comments to himself, given the former Obama adviser broadly thinks Biden has done a good job as president.
“Sure, there are a million things you can criticize the administration about in any day. But on the whole, David Axelrod, you think Biden is doing a good job, but maybe keep your 10 percent opinion quiet when the 90 percent is he’s doing a good job,” the alum said. “Why do you have an innate ability to focus on the 10 percent?”
But whenever there is piercing criticism of Biden from someone in Obama World, there will be attention.
Sources from both the Obama and Biden camps told The Hill that while there has been strain over the years, there is also respect and support. And sources suggested Axelrod doesn’t represent the old boss’s whole team.
What was described as a collective eye roll was a reminder of old tensions.
Biden for eight years served as Obama’s vice president, yet former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was the Democratic candidate in 2016 — not the vice president.
Biden wrote in his 2017 book, “Promise Me, Dad,” that Obama “had been subtly weighing in against” a White House run in 2015 and he believed at the time that Obama concluded Clinton would be the nominee.
In his 2023 book on Biden, “The Last Politician,” author Franklin Foer wrote about how Biden made an effort to extend empathy and respect for his vice president, Kamala Harris, because he wasn’t always granted that when he served in the role.
“[Biden] wanted to treat Harris with the respect that he felt Barack Obama hadn’t accorded him,” Foer wrote. “He a made a point of referring to her as the vice president, as opposed to my vice president. He was a stickler for asking her opinion in meetings — and making sure that her office was kept in the loop.”
The idea that Biden is constantly underestimated by his party, by the media and by some Obama alumni is a running theme of this presidency, say sources who spoke to The Hill.
“Prior to [Axelrod’s] comments, there was always tension between the staff at all levels. There’s a tension there between the two camps, for sure, that has always existed,” said a former staffer for the Biden 2020 campaign.
A former Obama administration aide agreed “there’s always tension there” and described the Obama-Biden aides dynamic as a result of an Obama White House that had “sharp elbows” and an inner circle that was “difficult to penetrate” for Biden’s team.
“You’ve got lots of egos, and so there is the warmup folks and then the main show. The undercard and the main event. There’s always that dynamic between the presidency and the vice presidency staff,” the source said.
The former Biden 2020 campaign alum described a preoccupation at Biden’s campaign headquarters in Philadelphia that year with “Pod Save America,” a podcast run by former Obama staffers, including Jon Favreau and Jon Lovett.
“Everyone in Philadelphia was a little obsessed with those guys because they were always sh—ing on Biden and giving the benefit of the doubt to other candidates,” the source said.
Still, several sources who spoke to The Hill downplayed the impact of any friction.
“I do think that there’s still a lot of respect that’s there,” said one source who served on Obama’s campaign.
Axelrod has gotten under Biden’s skin before. He’s a fixture on social media and cable television whose success as a political analyst is in part reflected by his willingness to offer tough criticism of his own party.
Foer outlined in his book that Biden felt Axelrod didn’t give him “a fair shake.”
“He complained that there weren’t enough surrogates on television defending him. One of his fixations was David Axelrod’s appearances on CNN. He was part of the Obama ‘in’ crowd, and Biden complained to a friend that he still didn’t get a fair shake from the guy,” Foer wrote.
The former Biden 2020 campaign aide said Axelrod’s comments probably fired up the Biden team, saying it puts junior staff in a competitive position they love.
“They like being in the position to say, ‘You all thought we couldn’t win the primary, you all thought we couldn’t beat Trump, you thought there was a red wave coming, you thought he couldn’t bring back bipartisanship,’” the source said.
Other voices The Hill spoke to emphasized that Axelrod doesn’t speak for Obama or many on his team. Axelrod has since said that it’s overreacting to say he told Biden to drop out.
Former Obama adviser Jim Messina, who often shares his support for Biden through social media and punditry, went on CNN on Monday to dismiss the recent negative polls, giving a nod to Biden.
Another former Biden White House aide told The Hill the Biden and Obama teams are in touch “on an almost daily basis” and that Obama’s team has largely come to defend and support the current president.
“My sense is that’s just a theme that’s been kind of repeated across the Biden administration, that this administration has been underestimated. But I don’t think that’s a reflection or a nudge to the Obama team,” the source said.
Obama this week has been touting the work of the Biden administration on artificial intelligence. In June, the former president participated in two fundraising videos for Biden’s reelection campaign.
Around that time, his adviser Eric Schultz put out a statement about how Obama “looks forward to supporting Democrats up and down the ballot next fall, and no race has bigger stakes than President Biden’s reelection.” He added that the Obama team is “deliberate in picking our moments” because their “objective is to move the needle.”
Many of the people who work or worked for Biden are Obama alumni. That includes Klain, who helped Obama with debate prep in 2008 and was later his Ebola czar.
Biden’s current chief of staff, Jeff Zients, was director of the National Economic Council for Obama, and his campaign manager, Julie Chávez Rodriguez, worked for the Obama administration as deputy director of public engagement. His previous campaign manger, Jen O’Malley Dillon, who is now Biden’s deputy chief of staff, worked on Obama’s 2012 campaign as deputy campaign manager.
One aide who worked for both presidents agreed there are sometimes tensions, but said they are easily put aside — especially after an electoral success like the one Democrats notched Tuesday.
“Those tensions feel a lot more tangential following a Tuesday night like we just had. Playing around the margins about what you think and want the Democratic Party to be, all of that is fine when you win like we won Tuesday night,” the source said.
White House deputy press secretary Andrew Bates denied there are any tensions between the Biden and Obama camps.
“No one has been a stronger supporter of the Biden-Harris administration and its agenda than President Obama, his team, and veterans of the Obama-Biden administration,” Bates said.
This story was updated at 10:23 a.m.