The conversations keep happening – quiet whispers on the sidelines of events, texts, emails, furtive phone calls – as top Democrats and donors reach out to those seen as possible replacement presidential candidates.
Get ready, they urge, in conversations that aides to several of the people involved have described to CNN: Despite what he has said, despite the campaign that has been announced, President Joe Biden won’t actually be running for reelection.
They feel like time is already running out and that the lack of the more robust campaign activity they want to see is a sign that his heart isn’t really in it.
It’s a persistent sense that the inner circle of advisers to the president and several of the very few aides who have been hired for his reelection campaign dismiss as absurd. Of course, he is running, they say. Of course, they’re taking preparations very seriously. And, with the always present Biden chip on their shoulder, of course they’re being written off again by the purported wise elders of the party and pundits who still refuse to take him seriously.
“They are so underestimated, and they keep getting it right,” said Jim Messina, former president Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign manager, who has been one of the people privately advising Biden’s team to ramp up gradually.
Anxiety, complaints and apocalyptic thinking that have often defined Democrats in the Biden years are about to get their latest Rorschach test, with the disclosure of fundraising for the first few months of his campaign – which must be filed by Saturday.
Concern over how it will be measured against the $86 million Barack Obama raised in the first few months after announcing his own reelection campaign in 2011, along with the slow pace of building out a campaign structure, is already feeding the latest round of frustration and worry described to CNN by almost two dozen current Biden aides, top Democratic operatives and donors, and alumni of other recent campaigns.
Some things are already clear: multiple big donors aren’t locking in. Grassroots emails are sometimes bringing in just a few thousand dollars.
In a race that many expect will likely come down to a few hundred thousand votes in a few states, the doubters argue that every day without a packed schedule on the stump will prove to voters that Biden’s age is as big a worry as they believe it is. Or that the president and people around him aren’t taking the threat of losing to Donald Trump or another Republican seriously enough, and they’re setting up for Election Night next year to be 2016 déjà vu.
“If Trump wins next November and everyone says, ‘How did that happen,’ one of the questions will be: what was the Biden campaign doing in the summer of 2023?” said a person who worked in a senior role on Biden’s 2020 campaign.
“I’m not sure which is harder: Getting people to focus on the campaign, or getting people excited about it,” a longtime Democratic fundraiser said, speaking on condition of anonymity to avoid alienating a sensitive White House.
Though people around Biden still believe that Trump’s continued lead in the GOP primary polls sets up a stark contrast that will be helpful for the president, they are privately much more concerned with the possibility of losing to the former president than they tend to let on. His campaign planning is kept very closely held – and still almost entirely run out of the West Wing, so much so that the president himself has asked to meet personally with finalists for senior roles, all of which is slowing nearly every decision. Biden advisers have told allies they are following a tight, purposeful strategy which takes into account the vulnerabilities they recognize their candidate has, the strengths of his record they think they can tap into, and the particularities of America heading into 2024.
And they believe that moving too much into campaign mode too early wouldn’t just burn through millions of dollars, but risk politicizing the president as he tries to position himself as a commonsense guy standing up for the middle ground against extremist Republicans. It would also complicate Biden and his Cabinet fanning out across the country to talk about infrastructure and “Bidenomics” – an attempt to proactively tackle the complaints about the economy which remain a top political concern internally – which is, for now, being done as government events, at taxpayer expense.
David Axelrod, one of the chief strategists for Obama’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns and now a CNN senior political commentator, said building up fundraising is critical, especially as insurance against a potential economic downturn or other crisis which could entice voters to look to whoever wins the Republican nomination as a fresh alternative.
“Trump is fully known, but you still want to dictate the terms of the debate, and you want to be able to do that next spring – and you want to have the resources to do that,” Axelrod told CNN.
Biden’s campaign insisted that it was off to a “strong start.”
“Democrats are unified around his historically successful agenda,” said campaign spokesman Kevin Munoz, who cited the early endorsements the campaign has received to build off Democrats’ performance in last year’s midterms. “Put that against the MAGA Republicans seeking the presidency, all fighting each other to the extremes on an agenda that has been soundly rejected by voters time and time again. The contrast speaks for itself.”
Blown deadlines and comparisons to the Obama reelection campaign
Biden has famously blown through every political timeline he has set for himself over the past eight years, but for an incumbent putting together what he and supporters feel is a campaign that is existential for the country, many leading Democrats feel time is running shorter than ever.
The headquarters in Wilmington discussed to be open by mid-July still isn’t. No staff is currently on the ground in competitive states, and names of potential hires have only started to be collected for review by the president and top advisers. The dozen people who are working for Biden-Harris 2024 full-time are mostly camped out at desks in the Democratic National Committee near Capitol Hill in Washington, with some griping about the delays in hiring staff and others still grumbling about how long it took to get on the payroll themselves. There is still no campaign finance director.
The president’s stumbles in public and meandering comments at fundraisers, meanwhile, continue to make supporters wince, like when he said, “I’m not big on abortion, but guess what? Roe v. Wade got it right” at a late June fundraiser in the D.C. suburbs or got caught up multiple times within one paragraph of the “Bidenomics” kick-off speech a day later.
Much of the Democratic anxiety is fed by comparisons to the pace of the Obama reelection campaign for the 2012 cycle: by this point 12 years ago, that Democratic president seeking a second term was months into building out an operation based in Chicago, with key staff making major strategic decisions and its revolutionary data operation starting to take shape. There were offices in swing states already building up local connections. They had a slogan.
That campaign is far from an exact analog: Republican nominee Mitt Romney was largely unknown nationally, while Trump is more defined in voters’ minds than possibly anyone in the history of American politics. And unlike when the Obama team spent years siphoning off staff and money from the Democratic National Committee to back his own Obama for America group, now Jen O’Malley Dillon, who helped lead those efforts in 2012, is a deputy White House chief of staff who has been the point person for directing the DNC to do most of the groundwork for the Biden campaign.
Among what Messina has urged the Biden team to learn from is holding off on hiring on-the-ground staff or packing a headquarters too early. His moves in 2011 eventually led to a hiring freeze in 2012, he said, and wasn’t, in retrospect, helpful to winning.
“We spent a lot of money in field in the off year, and there’s an argument that that wasn’t money well spent,” Messina said. “There are different ways to stoke the fire, and policy is one of them.”
For a president whose approval ratings remain in the low 40s and has tended to suffer from low voter enthusiasm, the challenge may prove different, and multiple experienced Democratic campaign operatives argue that should encourage Biden to start doing more of that engagement work immediately.
North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper said that as he has talked with the president’s political advisers about making his state a prime battleground for 2024, he believes the organizing that the state Democratic party is handling there puts the presidential campaign “right on target.”
“When you’re a year and three months away from the election, it’s important that the president and supporters talk about the successes that this administration has experienced,” Cooper said, ticking through the events he has joined with Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and Cabinet secretaries touting job growth, new bridges and reproductive health care access on their many recent official visits to the state.
“There’s a lot of behind-the-scenes organizing and strategizing with the campaign, and I think when it’s time to flip the switch to do that, we will be ready to go, and the Biden campaign will be ready to go.”
Michigan Democratic Party chair Lavora Barnes said that in her swing state, they are also continuing to build out their year-round organizing efforts in a coordinated way, but in a way that the president’s campaign isn’t footing the bill. And while multiple veteran Democratic operatives stressed to CNN that their worries about the campaign are underscored by the selection of Julie Chávez Rodriguez as manager despite her lack of experience running major races, Barnes said her own conversations have left her confident.
“We will grow and ramp up alongside the Biden campaign, probably in late fall or early next year,” Barnes said.
As even some of the people voicing them acknowledge, many of the complaints about Biden are the same that they have been at nearly every point over the last four years: He is slow to make big decisions, his impenetrable inner circle is only slightly less old and White than Biden is himself and keeps as tight a grip on power as on information. Excitement for the president himself has never been high, and efforts to change that have never amounted to much.
“They rightfully would say, ‘Everybody said we didn’t know what we were doing in 2019 and into 2020, and he’s the guy they play Hail to the Chief for when he walks into the room, so we obviously know something, and we know what we’re doing,’” said Axelrod, who acknowledged that he has been one of those critics, but is impressed with how much Biden has accomplished as president.
A ‘crapshoot’ election
Some frustrated next generation Democratic operatives compare Biden to a house guest who’s overstayed his welcome whom they still have all agreed to back at this moment. More committed progressives say they are ready to fall in line too because of the threat they believe Trump and other Republicans pose – “it’s basically a popular front to stop what Biden calls the attacks on freedom,” said Larry Cohen, the former president of the Communications Workers of America and board chair of the Bernie Sanders-aligned Our Revolution.
But the threat of Trump’s return is precisely what keeps the worries about Biden coming back.
“It’s a crapshoot, this election,” said one senior Democrat, “and when it’s a crapshoot, you have to do everything possible. It cannot be done when the guy’s 80 years old and has his day job. People say you can have a Rose Garden strategy, but usually it’s because it’s a strategy, not because you don’t have a choice.”
A half-dozen senior Democratic advisers, all of whom spoke on condition of anonymity to give a frank assessment of the Biden reelection effort, said they were concerned about the slow pace of the campaign. While all peppered their comments with respect and admiration for Biden’s achievements, they said they fear the campaign is not fully embracing the advantage he has as the Republicans fight out their own primary.
“The most important power of incumbency is taking time to plan and build your campaign while your challenger is busy with a primary,” a Democratic campaign veteran said. “They are late in doing everything, and everyone knows it.”
Still, another Biden 2020 campaign alumnus pushed back on concerns over the president’s stamina, pointing to a cross-country fundraising blitz he did in the final days of the quarter and noting his travel schedule this year is on par with that of Obama’s – who was 30 years younger when running for reelection – in 2011.
Animosity toward Trump papered over many similar holes for Biden in 2020.
“What motivates people is less the love of their party, but hatred of the other candidate,” said Lis Smith, a longtime Democratic strategist who worked on the Obama-Biden reelection campaign in 2012. “A lot of enthusiasm will come for voting against Republicans.”
Meanwhile, Trump is still holding a massive lead in every Republican primary poll, giving hope to Biden pessimists.
“You can raise more now, but President Biden is raising less,” a veteran Democratic fundraiser on the West Coast said. “The money will clearly be there in the end – certainly if Trump is the nominee – but it’s not there yet.”
CNN’s Jeff Zeleny contributed to this story.