A New Candidate for Obama’s Rightful Heir

Alumni of the Obama administration love Joe Biden. But some of them think that Deval Patrick is better equipped to win the presidency.

Deval Patrick and Barack Obama prepare to high-five.
Jason Reed / Reuters

Joe Biden rarely goes anywhere without mentioning “my friend Barack.” Pete Buttigieg has a line in his stump speech about how he first went to Iowa to campaign for another “young man with a funny name.” Even though Barack Obama will not endorse in this primary, he has made a point of meeting with almost all the candidates, and he looms over the race.

But the politician personally closest to Obama is Deval Patrick. As several people in Obama’s inner circle have been saying to me for months before Patrick’s potential presidential candidacy leaked out on Monday, Biden originally came into the Obama fold as a matter of transactional politics, picked to balance the 2008 ticket; Patrick is an actual longtime friend based on mutual affinities. That Patrick seems poised to jump into the race at the last minute is the clearest sign yet of how much anxiety there is among Obama’s inner circle about Biden’s campaign. “Deval is a lot like Obama,” a former Obama aide told me. “People who were drawn to Obama would be drawn to Patrick.”

Those who have spoken with Patrick tell me that because he would be getting in so late, he is considering skipping the Iowa caucus and pinning his hopes on the New Hampshire primary (where he has the advantage of being from a neighboring state in the same media market) and then making a play in South Carolina (where, as a black candidate, he would presumably have an advantage among the heavily African American electorate). That strategy, however, would pit him directly against Biden, whose campaign aides have been talking about staking the former vice president’s hopes on making a stand in South Carolina after possibly losing earlier contests.

Biden and Patrick occupy different positions in the Obama orbit and evoke different emotional responses. Feelings toward Biden are rooted in deep affection. When Biden was deliberating about whether to run for president in the 2016 and 2020 election cycles, people in the Obama camp were torn between wanting him to run because they loved him so much, they thought he should get to be president and wanting him not to run because they loved him so much, they didn’t want him to get hurt. Feelings for Patrick tend more toward admiration—his intellect and his rhetorical skill inspire the same passion that Obama’s once did.

Obama himself is known to be an admirer of Patrick’s political expertise—in fact, Patrick may be the only current politician whose skills Obama truly respects. That admiration is in part why some close to the former president—including Valerie Jarrett, Obama’s longtime confidante and senior White House adviser; David Simas, Obama’s former White House political director and the current CEO of the Obama Foundation, who previously worked as deputy chief of staff to Patrick when he was governor of Massachusetts; and David Axelrod, the former Obama political strategist—spent time last year trying to encourage Patrick to declare his candidacy for 2020. Two years ago, before the Democratic field began to coalesce, the ex-president himself urged Patrick to run, Obama aides told me at the time.

Though Obama initially allied himself with Biden in 2008 for tactical reasons, the two men became real friends over their eight years serving together, and their families grew close. (In June, Obama’s daughter Sasha and Biden’s granddaughter Maisy celebrated their high-school graduation together over a joint family meal.) But Obama is closer to Patrick, and has known him longer—ever since a mutual friend from the Harvard Law Review connected them in the 1990s, when Obama was asking for donations for his first state-Senate race, in Illinois. Obama talks with Patrick more often than he does with Biden, in part because they have more in common: Both are self-made black men who achieved national prominence through politics. (After growing up poor on Chicago’s South Side, Patrick was the first person in his family to go to college, attending Harvard and Harvard Law School, before going on to work in the Justice Department during Bill Clinton’s administration—his confirmation hearing chaired by Senator Joe Biden—being elected governor, and then starting a social-impact fund at Bain Capital.) Patrick and Obama have frequent deep discussions about race, books, and politics.

Though I’m told that Obama remains determined to stay out of the primaries, he’s following the race closely, and has been talking with people about the Biden campaign’s struggles, as well as about Elizabeth Warren’s failure—despite the overall strength of her candidacy—to attract many nonwhite voters. (I’m also told that Jarrett, in particular, has been expressing worries about the strength of the field, though she didn’t respond to an email I sent her about this earlier this week.) No one close to Patrick or the ex-president would speak with me on the record about their relationship in the context of the 2020 race, and a spokesperson for Obama declined to comment on whether the two friends have conferred about a Patrick candidacy. But multiple people who know both men told me that they can’t imagine Patrick moving forward with a presidential campaign without him talking it through with Obama to get a frank assessment of his chances.

What’s puzzling and frustrating to many of his would-be supporters is why Patrick is only getting into the race now, mere days before the Friday filing deadline in New Hampshire and with less than three months until the Iowa caucuses. Especially since many Obama alumni (and others) were on the verge of dropping everything a year ago to work on his 2020 campaign: In December 2018, Patrick started laying the groundwork for a campaign—calls went out to potential campaign staff and brokers of office space—and then suddenly stopped the process days later. Even after that, several people close to him checked in before taking other campaign jobs, to make sure that he wouldn’t change his mind and run; they received his blessing to move on. Now many of his top aides are committed elsewhere: Doug Rubin, a former top strategist, is advising Tom Steyer’s campaign; John Walsh, another top adviser, is managing Senator Ed Markey’s primary campaign in Massachusetts; John Del Cecato, who made advertisements for Patrick’s gubernatorial campaigns, is working for Buttigieg—the list goes on.

In Patrick’s first run for governor, in 2006, he spent a year slowly building support, one house party or small event at a time, en route from being a relative political unknown to winning the election. Last year, when a Patrick presidential campaign seemed to be in the works, that 2006 slow-build run was to be the model.

There’s no time for that now. There would also seem to be no money, and unlike Michael Bloomberg, who filed candidacy paperwork in Alabama late last week, Patrick can’t draw on a personal fortune to fuel a campaign. So what’s the rationale for why Patrick is jumping in so late? It’s the same as Bloomberg’s: the growing fear that Biden will lose to Warren who will then lose to Donald Trump—or that Biden himself, even if he does secure the Democratic nomination, will not be nimble enough to defeat Trump in the general. (Appearing as a political commentator on CBS last month, Patrick said that he thought Biden’s support among voters seemed “soft” and that “it feels like his campaign is contracting rather than expanding,” and he’s expressed doubts about the Medicare for All plans supported by Warren and Bernie Sanders.)

On the one hand, a Patrick candidacy begun this late is unlikely to be anything but quixotic. On the other hand, Patrick does seem—at least superficially—like more of a natural fit for where the modern Democratic Party is going than the former mayor of New York: Bloomberg’s managerial acumen aside, as an old, ultrarich white man with a spotty record with women and African Americans, he is like a human bingo card of what the most active Democratic voters are not looking for.

But alumni of the 44th president’s administration, along with many other Democrats, are desperate to find the next Obama. Already wincing at the undermining of Obama’s policies by Trump on the right, they bridle at the (usually implicit) attacks on his legacy by Democratic-primary candidates on the left, and are eager to defend against them. Patrick might be capable of building an Obama-style appeal to disparate parts of the electorate in order to lead America “back to common ground,” as he has said the Democratic nominee must do. But with little time, little money, and many potential staff already working for other candidates, a successful Deval Patrick candidacy will require magic of Frank Capra–esque proportions.