In a multimillion-dollar TV campaign and on the trail, Michael Bloomberg portrays himself as having a close bond with former President Obama. But the two have had a complicated relationship, with Mr. Bloomberg at times criticizing the Obama administration.
The former New York City mayor's presidential campaign is airing an ad touting Mr. Bloomberg's work with Mr. Obama -- who has remained neutral in the crowded Democratic primary -- on gun safety laws, education and jobs for teenagers, with a voice-over from a speech Mr. Obama gave introducing him as a leader who can "bring people together to seek pragmatic solutions."
Mr. Bloomberg has put more than $15 million behind the 30-second ad, according to estimates from political-ad tracker Kantar/CMAG. Through Friday, the ad has aired more than 23,000 times in at least 177 media markets.
In speeches on the campaign trail, Mr. Bloomberg and those who have endorsed him also bring up the billionaire's work with Mr. Obama. "Anybody that Obama likes, I love 'em," said Elenora Woods, president of the NAACP's Chattanooga chapter, introducing Mr. Bloomberg at one of his events in Tennessee Wednesday.
The strategy appears to be paying dividends.
Some black voters who attended Mr. Bloomberg's events in North Carolina and Tennessee this week mentioned the ad featuring the former president as part of the reason they had become interested in the billionaire. One said she perceived it as an endorsement; another said she assumed Mr. Obama had given permission, which implied "tacit support."
David Axelrod, a former senior adviser to Mr. Obama, said he had even fielded numerous calls in recent days from political operatives and some elected officials asking if Mr. Obama had endorsed Mr. Bloomberg.
"The saturation level of media that Bloomberg is running penetrates in a way that the others have not," he said.
Mr. Axelrod said Mr. Obama and Mr. Bloomberg shared "a working relationship" on issues like climate change but weren't close on a personal level.
"They certainly weren't best buds," he said. "It does speak to the power of Obama with Democrats. Everyone wants to have an ad like this."
Another former Obama administration official said that while the two agreed on certain issues, the ad overstates the closeness of their relationship.
"From the moment Mike first met then-Sen. Obama in November 2007, he knew he'd be a singular force in American history," said Julie Wood, spokeswoman for Mr. Bloomberg's campaign, pointing to issues they worked on together, including reducing gun violence, tackling climate change and helping young black men through the My Brother's Keeper, which was largely modeled after Mr. Bloomberg's Young Men's Initiative.
"While Mike has never been shy to critique Washington dysfunction or partisan division, he believes that President Obama showed extraordinary leadership in the White House," Ms. Wood said.
Mr. Bloomberg -- who was elected mayor as a Republican and became an independent in 2007 -- didn't endorse Mr. Obama for president in 2008. Mr. Bloomberg also withheld his endorsement for most of the 2012 race, saying at one point that he was disappointed in the way both Mr. Obama and the GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney had answered a question on gun safety during a debate.
"I think what we did get was a perfect example of obfuscation and very little honesty," Mr. Bloomberg said during a press conference at City Hall.
Days before the 2012 election, in a surprise announcement in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, Mr. Bloomberg endorsed Mr. Obama in an editorial, saying he would be better in tackling climate change. But Mr. Bloomberg also called Mr. Obama's first term disappointing.
"As president, he devoted little time and effort to developing and sustaining a coalition of centrists, which doomed hope for any real progress on illegal guns, immigration, tax reform, job creation and deficit reduction," Mr. Bloomberg wrote in his endorsement editorial. "And, rather than uniting the country around a message of shared sacrifice, he engaged in partisan attacks and has embraced a divisive populist agenda focused more on redistributing income than creating it."
Four years later, when Mr. Bloomberg considered his own White House bid as an independent in 2016, a leaked ad produced by his team that never aired showed the former mayor distancing himself from Mr. Obama's foreign policy. Over images of the Islamic State logo and U.S. troops, the ad said Mr. Bloomberg "would restore America's place in the world."
After Mr. Bloomberg left office, at the annual meeting in 2014 for Sifma, an influential financial industry trade group, he also went after Dodd-Frank financial regulations and the Affordable Care Act passed under the Obama administration, according to news accounts of the event. The billionaire called the financial regulation laws "really dysfunctional" and "stupid laws."
Mr. Bloomberg, who supports building on the Affordable Care Act with a public option, said in 2014 that the White House should have drafted the health-care and financial-regulation bills after consulting with experts instead of having Congress craft them.
A spokeswoman for Sifma said the group couldn't find a video of Mr. Bloomberg's remarks at its 2014 conference, though videos of other speakers at its meetings are posted online.
And in 2016, during an event at Oxford University's business school, Mr. Bloomberg also said Mr. Obama was elected for his oratorical skills.
"People used to say he's so wonderful and he gave a great convention speech four years before he got elected....He's a decent speaker and he's done some good things as president of the United States," Mr. Bloomberg said. "But that's not a reason to give him a job, and yet that is the basis on which the public picked him."
The advertising I've seen, you'd think that, that Mike was Barack's vice president
Mr. Bloomberg and Mr. Obama, however, have remained in touch on occasion since Mr. Obama left the White House, and Mr. Bloomberg informed him of his decision to jump into the race late last year, a person close to the former president said. Mr. Obama wished him well and offered general advice about campaigning for president, as he has with other candidates, the person said.
Mr. Bloomberg isn't the only 2020 hopeful invoking his affiliation with Mr. Obama in the hopes of making a dent with the Democratic electorate.
Former Vice President Joe Biden, who mentions Mr. Obama in nearly every campaign appearance, has run an ad stitching together footage from when Mr. Obama presented him with the presidential Medal of Freedom before they left office. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, whose relationship with the Obama administration was often testy, released a TV spot featuring his 2010 remarks praising her work on the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
In recent days, Mr. Bloomberg's opponents have mentioned the ad in attacking him. "And the advertising I've seen, you'd think that, that Mike was Barack's vice president," said Mr. Biden during a fundraiser Thursday to laughter from the crowd.