Mar 18, 2024 - Politics & Policy

"Obama would be jealous": How Biden's rivalry with his ex-boss shapes his presidency

President Biden gives two thumbs-up to a crowd as former President Obama applauds behind him.

President Biden and former President Obama campaign together in Philadelphia just before the 2022 midterm elections. Photo: Mark Makela/Getty Images

President Biden doesn't speak frequently with Barack Obama — but behind closed doors, he talks about him a lot.

Why it matters: Biden often measures himself against the man he served as vice president, current and former aides say. It's a complex relationship in which there is a rivalry — particularly on Biden's side.

  • "Obama would be jealous," Biden sometimes says when speaking about a perceived accomplishment, according to two Biden aides familiar with such instances.
  • The competitive dynamic has informed Biden's approach to several issues — including how he's dealt with Afghanistan, Israel and Congress.

Reality check: On a personal level, the Biden-Obama relationship is respectful and even affectionate.

  • Obama often praises Biden publicly and is set to be a key surrogate on the campaign trail this fall to help Biden get re-elected.

Driving the news: Biden's range of feelings about Obama is apparent in the recently released transcript of Biden's interview with special counsel Robert Hur, who investigated Biden's handling of classified documents.

  • Unprompted, Biden told Hur about the wounding experience of Obama favoring Hillary Clinton over him to be the Democratic presidential nominee in 2016.
  • Biden recalled that "a lot of people ... were encouraging me to run in this period, except the president .... He just thought that [Clinton] had a better shot of winning the presidency than I did."
  • Biden privately has told aides that he believed he could have beaten Donald Trump if he had run in 2016.

What they're saying: "President Biden does not make such comments in private. As President Biden has said, President Obama is family to him," White House spokesperson Andrew Bates told Axios.

  • Biden "talks to both former President Obama and President Clinton often," Bates added.
  • A spokesperson for Obama declined to comment.

The intrigue: Many longtime Biden aides have long felt that Obama and his team did not fully appreciate Biden's experience with foreign policy, Congress and grip-and-grin politicking — and were disrespectful.

  • Many strong relationships remain between Biden and Obama worlds, but there is some hostility.
  • One former Biden aide told Axios: "The Obama people thought Biden would suck as president. They didn't think he'd be organized enough to execute."

Some Biden aides resent the large number of Obama veterans Biden and his top aides decided to bring into the current administration at levels above people who had worked with Biden for much longer.

  • "We do have too many Obama people who don't care about Joe Biden. It's about them," one former White House official told Axios.
  • Obama himself acknowledged in 2021 the overlap between his team and Biden's, telling The New York Times, "Joe and the administration are essentially finishing the job ... 90% of the folks who were there in my administration, they are continuing and building on the policies we talked about."

This has created tension between the two camps ahead of the 2024 election — especially when some Obama-era operatives offer advice.

  • "When people say, 'This is what worked for Obama,' their first response is often, 'We're not Obama,' " one senior Democrat who has been in touch with the White House said of Biden's team.
  • But Biden's White House does regularly consult some Obama aides — especially former Obama campaign manager Jim Messina. He's in frequent touch with Biden senior adviser Anita Dunn and campaign manager Julie Chávez Rodríguez.

Zoom in: At times, Biden's competitiveness with Obama has affected how he governs. He's tried to correct for what he sees as the former president's mistakes and shortcomings.

  • Biden was adamant about withdrawing troops from Afghanistan in 2021 — in part because he felt vindicated that Obama should have followed his advice in 2009 to largely withdraw them then.
  • When talking about lobbying Obama against surging troops to Afghanistan in 2009, Biden told Hur that he was trying to "quite frankly, save his ass."
  • Biden ordered a withdrawal from Afghanistan in his first months as president. The chaos at the end of that operation — including the killing of 13 U.S. service members — was the lowest moment of Biden's presidency for many in the administration.

Biden White House officials also recall there was a push to "go big" in early 2021 with their first legislative package — the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, which included COVID aid and expansions of the social safety net.

  • That was partly because they believed Obama hadn't gotten enough money approved for the $787 billion Recovery Act during the 2009 financial crisis.

Biden's experience during the Obama administration also has affected how he's dealing with the aftermath of Hamas' Oct. 7 attack on Israel.

  • Biden had a warmer relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu than Obama, and embraced him after the attacks with a trip to Israel. Biden has since become publicly critical of Netanyahu's direction of the war in Gaza, however.

Especially early in his presidency, Biden paid extra attention to cultivating relationships with members of Congress — something he thought Obama should have done more.

  • Biden told Hur that as vice president he often had lawmakers over for breakfast just to get their take on matters — and that he'd push Obama to take a similar approach: "With President Obama, I would always say to him, 'Mr. President, all politics is personal.'"
  • People close to Biden's White House cheered when Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) told a reporter in early 2021 that Biden was the first president to host him in the Oval Office, even though Tester had been in the Senate all eight years of Obama's presidency.

Some former Obama aides had scoffed at the possibility that Republicans would work with a Democratic president, and Biden took pride in passing big bipartisan legislation on infrastructure and industrial policy.

  • One former Biden administration official noted that "there's a little bit of 'right back at you' attitude with Biden. You know, picking up the phone and calling senators does work, actually."
  • Like Obama, Biden had big legislative wins in his first two years with a supportive Congress — but far less success after Republicans took control of the House two years into his term.
Go deeper