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The Obama primary is underway

There's no debate within the Democratic Party about who its most popular politician is: It's Barack Obama, by a lot.

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Analysis Chris Cillizza (CNN Editor-at-large)
WASHINGTON (CNN) — There's no debate within the Democratic Party about who its most popular politician is: It's Barack Obama, by a lot.

So it's not terribly surprising that as ambitious Democratic candidates begin the arduous process of considering whether to run against President Donald Trump, they are seeking Obama's counsel.

Already 10 potential 2020ers have huddled privately with Obama to talk through the state of the country and the state of the party, according to CNN's Dan Merica. (Here's the list: Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders; Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren; former Vice President Joe Biden; former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick; New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker; former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu; Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti; South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Peter Buttigieg; former Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander; and former Attorney General Eric Holder.)

"He has been very clear about the need for the Democratic Party to rebuild and part of that is lifting up the next generation of leaders," a Democratic source told Merica. "So if people want advice or a gut check or just to come in and look at the challenges we face, he is happy to do that."

It's a near-certainty that Obama won't endorse any candidate in what promises to be a massive 2020 Democratic field. (Unless, of course, his wife, Michelle, runs.) Remember that Obama chose to remain neutral in the 2016 primary fight between Sanders and his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. He only endorsed Clinton after the last primary votes had been cast, in early June 2016.

Simply because Obama isn't likely to offer a formal endorsement of a candidate doesn't mean candidates won't be trying like hell to give off the impression that the former president likes them and their ideas best. 

You can imagine, say, Cory Booker in Iowa in December 2019, saying something like: "When I sat down with former President Obama, he and I agreed that etc. etc. etc. ..."

Then there is the inevitable tea leaf-reading that goes with former high-ranking Obama staffers or major donors signing on with one of the 2020 candidates. That -- the stuff on which the so-called "Invisible Primary" largely depends -- was almost totally absent during the 2016 race because almost everyone who was anyone in Obamaworld was on Clinton's side. 

There is no Clinton -- or Clinton-like front-runner figure -- in the race this time. If Biden runs -- and all signs point to that he will -- he will likely scoop up a number of donors and senior staff who aided Obama. But Biden has his own universe of political types and it predates his time as Obama's veep, meaning that simply assuming the former Delaware senator will be "Obama's guy" in 2020 may well miss the mark.

The Point: That Obama is taking meetings with presidential aspirants at all belies the idea prevalent in some Democratic circles that he had little interest in shaping the party -- and, potentially, the presidency -- going forward. Obama is clearly interested. We just don't know yet in whom.

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