WASHINGTON - Barack Obama endorsed Joe Biden's White House bid on Tuesday, saying his longtime vice president can unify and "heal" a nation struggling through some of its darkest moments.
The formal backing by perhaps the most popular politician in America is the latest boost for Biden's surging candidacy, and a further sign that Democratic leaders are rallying around the party flagbearer more than six months before November's election.
"Joe has the character and the experience to guide us through one of our darkest times and heal us through a long recovery," Obama said in a 12-minute video.
"I believe Joe has all the qualities we need in a president right now."
The cherished endorsement comes at a time of deep national anxiety, with the vast majority of Americans under stay-at-home orders due to the coronavirus pandemic that has killed nearly 25,000 people in the United States.
With President Donald Trump's handling of the outbreak under the spotlight, Obama signaled he believed Biden -- with four decades of government experience -- would be a far more capable manager of the US response.
"Joe helped me manage H1N1 (influenza) and prevent the Ebola epidemic from becoming the type of pandemic we're seeing now," Obama said.
Biden, 77, promptly expressed his thanks in a tweet.
"Barack -- This endorsement means the world to Jill and me," the Democratic stalwart said.
"We're going to build on the progress we made together, and there's no one I'd rather have standing by my side."
Biden is the Democratic Party's presumptive nominee to challenge Trump, after his lone remaining opponent Bernie Sanders dropped out of the race last week.
The leftist US senator from Vermont endorsed his ex-rival Monday, saying it was time for Americans to "come together" behind Biden.
Two-term president Obama also praised Sanders as a progressive champion whose energy and enthusiasm inspired young voters by the millions.
And he said it was time for those progressive supporters to help defeat the Republican incumbent.
"Right now, we need Americans of goodwill to unite in a great awakening against a politics that too often has been characterized by corruption, carelessness, self-dealing, disinformation, ignorance, and just plain meanness," Obama said.
"To change that, we need Americans of all political stripes to get involved in our politics and our public life like never before."
Obama's endorsement comes as the coronavirus has frozen traditional campaigning.
Typically, such high-profile support would be followed by Obama's appearance at a major Biden rally, generating substantial national coverage and prompting a deluge of campaign donations.
But it remains unclear when, if at all, on-the-ground campaigning will resume.
Obama forged a special bond with Biden during the eight years the former Delaware senator served as his wingman, awarding him the presidential medal of freedom in January 2017.
But thus far in the 2020 race the nation's first African-American leader had largely flown under the political radar.
Despite his silence he was given a starring role in campaign advertisements by Biden, Sanders and other candidates as they scrambled for advantage ahead of key primaries, such as those on Super Tuesday on March 3.
At campaign events and debates Biden made sure to show he is running as Obama's heir, routinely highlighting the partnership with his former boss.
But Biden, after sitting out 2016 to mourn the loss of his son Beau to cancer, had made clear from the start he would run on his terms.
"I asked president Obama not to endorse," Biden said last April 25, the day he launched his candidacy. "Whoever wins this nomination should win it on their own merits."
Obama's endorsement comes relatively early in the race compared to 2016.
That year he waited until June 8 to endorse Hillary Clinton, who had clinched the Democratic nomination against Sanders two days earlier.
David Axelrod, chief strategist of Obama's 2008 campaign, said Obama had committed to all 2020 Democratic candidates to not put his finger on the scale until the nomination was decided.
"He wanted to be a unifying figure for the Democratic Party, and he didn't feel he could do that if he intervened too soon," Axelrod told CNN Tuesday.
"Now that the outcome is determined, he is clearly going to plunge into this."
© Agence France-Presse