Special: Democrats Work to Unite Around Biden

Apr. 17, 2020 AT 9:48 p.m. EDT

Former President Barack Obama endorsed his vice president, Joe Biden, as Democratic nominee, joining former candidates Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren in trying to unite the party. But while Biden is self-isolating at his home in Delaware, President Trump has been dominating headlines and holding regular on-camera briefings.

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Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

ROBERT COSTA: Welcome to our Washington Week Extra. I’m Robert Costa.

Let’s talk politics, 2020 politics. The campaign continues even with the pandemic and there was big news this week. I’m surprised we didn’t have time in the program, but news is so busy these days. But here’s the big piece of news on the 2020 front: former President Barack Obama endorsed his former VP, Joe Biden, days after Biden’s rival, Senator Bernie Sanders, endorsed him – endorsed the former VP. Obama’s nod effectively was the end of the fight for the nomination, with the former president urging the party to come together.

FORMER PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (From video.) I’m so proud to endorse Joe Biden for president of the United States. One thing everybody has learned by now is that the Republicans occupying the White House and running the U.S. Senate are not interested in progress; they’re interested in power. We have to look to the future. Bernie understands that and Joe understands that. It’s one of the reasons that Joe already has what is the most progressive platform of any major-party nominee in history, because even before the pandemic turned the world upside down it was already clear that we needed real structural change.

MR. COSTA: On the Republican side President Trump isn’t holding his beloved rallies these days, but his allies say he has been able to dominate the headlines with his daily briefings, all as former Vice President Biden is relegated to his own basement in Delaware.

Joining me to discuss all this and the campaign: Peter Baker, chief White House correspondent for The New York Times; Paula Reid, White House correspondent for CBS News; and Kristen Welker, White House correspondent for NBC News.

Kristen, President Trump, he’s out there every day, but Vice President Biden’s trying to get some attention. What does it mean to have the support from former President Obama?

KRISTEN WELKER: It could not be more significant. It is a sign that the party is now coalescing around him officially. Of course, former President Obama endorsed him after Senator Bernie Sanders endorsed him, who dropped out last week, and so what we’re really seeing is the Democratic Party starting to unite around Joe Biden. But the question becomes, will Biden be able to win over Senator Sanders’ supporters in a more robust way than we saw in 2016 with Hillary Clinton? We’re starting to see Biden’s strategy. He’s adapting some of his policies, some of Sanders’ policies, and former President Obama spoke about Senator Sanders’ supporters in those remarks that we saw this week. And so they are from the get-go making it very clear that they want to extend an olive branch to Sanders supporters. In talking to people who are familiar with the Biden campaign, the goal now is to try to win over some of those younger voters as well. That’s going to be a key focus. So expect that to be one of the things that we hear quite a bit from Vice President – former Vice President Joe Biden. But how does he campaign when you can’t get out on the trail? I am told that he is going to make the coronavirus – President Trump’s response to it – a centerpiece of this early phase of the campaign, and he’s going to be hitting him on it almost every day, Bob.

MR. COSTA: Paula, what about President Trump? Will he be out there doing campaign rallies anytime soon?

PAULA REID: Some people argue that’s part of what these briefings are, they’re to replace the campaign rallies. The president gets to go out and sometimes he can just filibuster until he has to answer questions. He believes that it gives him sort of the look of being very presidential, but if you focus very closely on the content a lot of people have concerns about how the administration has handled this response. And the president was banking on a strong economy; it was his economic record that he thought would propel him to reelection in November. And clearly, large swaths of this economy are no longer open, tens of millions of people are unemployed even as the stock market rebounds. The president does not have that economic record to run on. That is part of why he is working so hard, trying so hard to encourage parts of the economy to reopen, and he said just moments ago in the briefing that he wants to get back on the campaign trail. He wants to continue to hold the spotlight and try to repair the U.S. economy.

MR. COSTA: Peter, what about President Obama’s decision to do it in this way at this time, as a longtime reporter on the Obama beat?

PETER BAKER: Yeah, look, I think that the most important thing that Obama did for Joe Biden wasn’t visible; it was to help clear the field. He had – according to my colleague Glenn Thrush, he had four conversations – long conversations – with Bernie Sanders in recent weeks, clearly intended to try to help, you know, ease that campaign to a logical ending. And I think that that is more important, in fact, than the public endorsement, because I don’t think anybody really is all that surprised that President Obama would support his own vice president. So I think that clearing the field, helping Vice President Biden bring the party together, is the most important priority for President Obama at this point. As I said earlier – as Kristen said earlier, I mean, that’s the key for them given what happened in 2016. That’s why you see President Trump trying as hard as he can to drive a wedge among the Democrats, to talk about Bernie Sanders as if somehow he had been robbed of the nomination in some unfair, untoward, crooked manner in order just to disenchant his supporters, keep them home, perhaps maybe even win a few of them over to his side.

MR. COSTA: Peter, just a follow up: Do we know what President Obama said to Senator Sanders to try to nudge him along?

MR. BAKER: I don’t think we know the exact content of those conversations. I think you can imagine if there were four of them in that short time period that they were – they were, you know, respectful and substantive. And you know, you and I both know how President Obama does his business; it’s usually not, you know, in a – in a Trumpian way, let’s say. I’m sure he didn’t make bombastic threats or anything like that. The way he would try to do it, his style would be to try to encourage Senator Sanders to see his way of the – of the interpretation of what’s going on, to help move him in a way that gave him respect without feeling pushed out.

MR. COSTA: Kristen, you want to jump in?

MS. WELKER: Yeah, I think that Peter’s absolutely right, and – that you would anticipate that former President Obama would be respectful and that the most significant thing may be these conversations that took place behind the scenes not only with Bernie Sanders, but rewind and go back to the conversations that he had with Mayor Pete Buttigieg to encourage him to not only drop out but quickly endorse Vice President Biden, and that’s what we saw happen before Super Tuesday, and that was so instrumental in really mobilizing that party support around Biden on Super Tuesday, which ultimately led to those big wins that we saw. So moving forward, I think it is safe to say that he is going to be a critical part of this campaign.

And again, what is happening right now is they’re trying to figure out how to campaign in this new age, when you have President Trump every day in the briefing room. He’s well-aware of the fact that this is a way to essentially be out front without being on the campaign trail. Biden doesn’t have that same real estate, if you will. And so he is holding these interviews from his basement. And I think you’re going to see former President Obama try to get very creative in the ways that he reachs out to voters as well in the coming weeks.

MR. COSTA: Interviews from his basement. It sounds like some kind of horror story. (Laughs.) But, Paula, I saw you wanted to jump in here as well.

MS. REID: Absolutely. I think we also have to look at what happened in Wisconsin this week. A lot of conservative operatives were really focused on the Supreme Court election there. There was one seat open. They were working really hard to canvass and try to get a Republican elected to that seat. The president had thrown his support, I was at a rally with him, threw his support behind that candidate, and they didn’t win that judicial race.

Now, I asked some senior advisors here if they were concerned about that, since Wisconsin is so significant. They dismissed it, saying because it was a Democratic primary those are the voters that turned out. But I’ve been told for months, actually, that they were really focused on that to try to get a sense of how the president is doing in Wisconsin. There are concerns here within the White House that the coronavirus, what it’s done to the economy, clearly the death toll, that this has left the president vulnerable to attacks on his overall response.

MR. COSTA: No, it’s a great point, and Democrats are feeling good about what happened in Wisconsin, as you said, Paula. Peter, what about the decision that’s on the horizon for Vice President Biden, his running mate? We’ve seen Senator Warren out there, Senator Harris, Stacey Abrams. Where do you think the Biden campaign is going to go? They now have President Obama and Senator Sanders on their side. And this pick really looms as the key decision moving forward.

MR. BAKER: Yeah, it really does. I think one thing he did early on by saying that his number-two would be a woman, was to exclude the whole dance of whether or not Bernie Sanders would be his choice. You know, you don’t have to give the number-two person the number-two slot if you’ve already ruled him out. So there’s no – you know, no awkward pas de deux, if you will, at this point about that. But which of the different women he has available to him, the different office holders, and candidates, and politicians is a big, big moment.

There’s a lot of, you know, support for Stacey Abrams, particularly among those who say he needs to, you know, bolster in particular the African American vote in the fall, that they think that that would energize people. There are those who say no-go for a Midwestern, you know, more moderate figure, like Amy Klobuchar, who, like as you said – Kirsten said about Pete Buttigieg – was really important in that Super Tuesday comeback for Joe Biden. I don’t see Elizabeth Warren as being, you know, the logical candidate for him, given the way he’s run. But a lot of people will be urging him to consider her as well. And I think this is the real key decision he has to make. The one thing he can do between now and the summertime to get any kind of real attention.

MR. COSTA: Anyone who’s covered Senator Sanders knows that being on a ticket, being vice president for anybody would probably not be at the top of his list, knowing his personality. But Kristen, when you talk to your Democratic sources and your sources at the White House about the vice presidential search, what at you hearing? What should we know?

MS. WELKER: Well, look, I think that they are looking seriously at all of the potential candidates that Peter just laid out. And I would say that they are trying to weigh do they want someone from the Midwest? I’m told that they’re giving Amy Klobuchar a very serious look. Don’t forget about Senator Harris. She is someone who, while she might not be that progressive firebrand that you have in Stacey Abrams, she is someone who they believe would help to energize African American voters. The question becomes: Is the Midwest more important, given the fact that you saw that large turnout among African American voters in South Carolina on Super Tuesday?

However, is it necessary to have someone who has that very strong outreach to that constituency? So I think those are all of the factors at play. And I think it’s a process that’s really just starting in earnest. I don’t think they had an official process in place. They were sort of waiting for Senator Sanders to drop out, and then to endorse him, and for President Obama to endorse him. So I think these are the types of steps that are going to start in earnest right now, the very serious process of trying to figure out who would be the strongest person to stand with him.

MR. COSTA: Paula Reid, final thoughts?

MS. REID: The president is itching to get back on the campaign trail. He is going to try to convince voters that the coronavirus was an artificial act of God, nothing to do with him, it ruined his perfect economy, and that he is the only one who can get America’s economy back on track.

MR. COSTA: That’s it for this edition of the Washington Week Extra. You can listen wherever you get your podcasts or watch it on our website. I want to thank Kristen Welker, Peter Baker, and Paula Reid, who’ve been very helpful to us this entire busy week. And while you’re online, check out our news quiz you just saw there.

I’m Robert Costa. Thanks for joining us and we’ll see you next time.

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