Can Obama and Clinton help Biden bolster his sagging poll campaign?

The former presidents appeared with Biden at the Democratic fundraiser

USA-ELECTION/BIDEN-OBAMA Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, President Biden | Reuters

You could call it a pilgrimage for the darshan of three presidents: thousands on foot, pushing against each other in New York City in cold, rainy weather under umbrellas, moving inch by inch to reach a mysterious blue tent. All well-dressed, many coming straight from work, with one mission―to reach the Radio City Music Hall in midtown Manhattan, through heavy security and blocked streets on March 28. It took a few hours, but no one was complaining: the goal was nothing less than to see and listen to three well-loved American presidents, Joe Biden, Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, live on stage together.

This was a Democratic fundraiser for the Biden reelection campaign and, in fact, it was said to be the largest fundraiser ever, for even before the evening began, it had already raised $26 million. Tickets were from $225 to $5,00,000 each, and the 6,000-seat venue had sold out. An opportunity to have a photograph with all three presidents taken by the noted photographer Annie Leibovitz was $1,00,000 each. For the biggest power donors, there was also an after-event reception with the presidents and celebrities.

That New York is a ‘blue city’ and that the support for all three presidents is strong was evident in the massive crowd which still had to contend with airport-like security once they got to the theatre. The reward was finally to watch celebrities like Lizzo, Queen Latifah, Cynthia Erivo, Lea Michelle and Ben Platt perform before the three presidents came on. First Lady Jill Biden received a standing ovation as she said, “Nearly 50 years ago, Joe asked me to marry him. After I said yes, he said something that I will never forget. He said ‘Jill, I promise you, your life will never change’. Well, that, of course, turned out to be wildly untrue. Life has changed and our journey together has given us a beautiful family and extraordinary unforgettable experiences like tonight. Not in my wildest dreams did I ever think that I will be standing on stage at Radio City Music Hall in front of thousands of people to help re-elect my husband as president of the United States.”

House minority leader Hakeem Jeffries thanked everyone for their commitment to democracy. “Every single thing that we care about is on the ballot in November.” He referred to the economy, social security, Medicare, the Affordable Care Act, climate crisis, gun safety legislation and reproductive choices for women. Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer listed the many accomplishments under Biden’s leadership, which included the largest infrastructure bill in decades creating hundreds of thousands of good jobs, the Public Safety Act and the legislation for environment and climate change.

Noted Indian-American actor and producer Mindy Kaling who was the host of the evening, said, “I don’t normally get asked to host political events like this.... It is such an honour to be in this room with so many rich people, people who paid up to $5,00,000 to be here. And I love that you are willing to spend money to reelect a president who has openly promised to raise your taxes!” There was wild applause as she added, “There are three living presidents in the building. If you say, ‘Mr President’, three people will answer.”

Donald Trump | AFP Donald Trump | AFP

The Late Show host Stephen Colbert moderated the conversation with the three presidents. “This is such an exciting and rare occasion, three presidents have all come to New York, and not one of them is here to appear in court,” said Colbert.

On the day of the celebratory fundraiser, Donald Trump was the fourth president visiting New York (in pic), having come to a slain police officer’s funeral and to underscore the difference between himself and Biden.

There was standing ovation when the three presidents appeared on stage together, all dressed in suits and tie-less. “I think our democracy is at stake. It is not a joke,” said Biden, citing all the changes made by his immediate predecessor Donald Trump. “I think democracy is literally at stake…. A lot of things he is doing are so old, and out of shape. But I am really hopeful because I think we could fly this election and we are in a position where we can set the course for the next four or five, six decades. We are at an inflection point.”

Obama and Clinton talked about Biden’s many legislative and economic successes, given the difficult stage he had inherited from Trump. “Well, it is not just the negative case against the presumptive nominee on the other side, it is the positive case for somebody who has done an outstanding job,” said Obama. “The point is, our passions get stirred by what we are up against, and Joe is absolutely right, that we have got not just a nominee, but frankly, a party and an entire infrastructure that increasingly seems unconcerned with the essence of America, the idea of self-governance and the possibilities of us all cooperating and bridging our differences and moving forward. But we also have a positive story to tell about the future. And that is something that Joe Biden has worked on.... I expect him to continue to do that for the next four years, eight months.”

Even in the festive mood of the evening, the Palestinian crisis was quite evident in hundreds of protesters outside the theatre, and the proceedings were interrupted by hecklers who had to be removed from the theatre. All three presidents addressed the issue. Biden said the Arab countries, including Egypt, Jordan and Qatar, are prepared to fully recognise Israel for the first time, but there had to be a post-Gaza plan and also plans for a two-state solution.

“One of the realities of the presidency is that the world has a lot of joy and beauty, but it also has a lot of tragedy and cruelty and there is history there,” said Obama. “And you don’t start from scratch. And you don’t have neat, easy answers to really hard problems. And I think people... want to feel a certain purity in terms of how those decisions are made, but a president does not have that luxury. And so when you look at a situation like we are seeing in Gaza and in Israel and your heart breaks, initially for a massacre of unbelievable cruelty. It is also possible for us to say we unequivocally support the people of Israel and their ability to live and raise families and so forth. That is not an easy process. So here is the thing, you cannot just talk and not listen. It is important for us to understand that it is possible to have more clarity, and have deeply held beliefs, but still recognise that the world is complicated, and it is hard to solve these problems.... [Biden] has moral conviction and clarity, he is willing to acknowledge that the world is complicated. And then he is willing to listen to all sides in this debate.”

Clinton agreed with Obama’s views. “I believe that this is one of the most important reasons to reelect President Biden. Because he genuinely cares about preserving the existence of Israel and about giving the Palestinians a decent state of self-governance and the support they need for self-determination.”

Throughout the evening, Biden never mentioned the name of his presumptive opponent Trump, but almost every statement he made was a rebuttal to what life would be like for Americans if the former president returned to the White House. It was ironic that on the day of the celebratory fundraiser, he was the fourth president visiting New York, having come to a slain police officer’s funeral and to underscore the difference between himself and Biden. While Biden’s fundraiser raised $26 million, and his overall war chest is $155 million, the Trump finances are at $74 million. Again, while the Democratic fundraiser showed the unity and camaraderie among Biden and his two Democratic predecessors, the Republican Party appears divided. None of the past leaders of the party like former president George W. Bush, Trump’s own vice president Mike Pence or his cabinet colleague Nikki Haley support Trump, although he has a solid supporter base.

The Biden fundraiser ended with all three presidents donning Biden-type sunglasses and waving to the crowd. There is going to be a lot of action, all the way to November.

A day after the fundraiser, I spoke to Raj Goyle, who was one of the first Indian Americans to get elected to public office. He was a member of the Kansas house of representatives and a cofounder of the Indian American Impact Project. “It is going to be a very challenging environment for everyone, but the fundamentals of the electorate and the debate favour President Biden. As you look at the half a dozen battleground states, the president is well positioned to bring those voters home,” said Goyle. “For those in India, it is also important to note that this administration has been quite forward thinking on the bilateral relationship between US and India, and moreover, has been a thoughtful partner about how to achieve security and peace across the world, given the grave challenges we face.”

Lavina Melwani is a New York-based journalist who writes for several international magazines. She blogs at Lassi with Lavina.