Biden Campaign, Barely in Gear, Inches Toward 2024
Two weeks after President Biden unveiled his re-election bid, his campaign manager has yet to start the job, his seven co-chairs have not had a group discussion and his team has made little outreach to allies in Congress.
For all the attention on Mr. Biden’s gauzy announcement video and the symbolism his campaign attributed to the day he entered the race — precisely four years after he began his 2020 bid and with the same message of saving the nation’s very soul — there is little evidence of the typical preparation for a national political campaign.
Mr. Biden’s top advisers insist the limited-release nature of his 2024 campaign is boring by design. They say they are holding down costs by outsourcing as much as possible to the Democratic National Committee while the president’s senior staff members remain ensconced in top White House roles that allow them to engage in campaign strategy.
“All of the pieces that should and need to fall into place will,” Jeffrey Katzenberg, the Hollywood mogul and Democratic megadonor and one of the Biden campaign co-chairs, said in an interview.
But for an incumbent president in full control of his own re-election timeline, the decision to begin with such a skeletal operation has left even supporters confused. Democratic allies worry, some in public and more in private, that Mr. Biden and his political team — whose successes have come chiefly by running against Donald J. Trump rather than through organic liberal enthusiasm — are not displaying the necessary urgency for the coming battle.
“Part of me is troubled that people are more enthusiastic about doing the often unglamorous work of government policymaking when there’s an extremely important political campaign that is staring us in the face,” said John Del Cecato, a strategist on Barack Obama’s 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns. “I don’t know if that speaks to a belief that this will be a joyless campaign re-election effort or if it’s something else.”
In the coming weeks and months, Mr. Biden will face two of the thorniest political issues of his presidency: an expected upturn of migrants at the Mexican border as a pandemic-era restriction on asylum requests expires this week and a looming debt limit crisis that threatens the American economy.
On Wednesday, Mr. Biden is headed to a suburb of New York, where he will discuss the debt limit in the district of one of the 18 House Republicans who represent areas that the president carried. Then he will head to Manhattan for two fund-raisers.
Representative Mike Lawler, the freshman Republican who represents the district, said that the president’s trip was not intimidating and that he had been invited and planned to attend.
“I guess he’s trying to exert pressure in a district he won by 10 points,” Mr. Lawler said. “It speaks volumes that that same district elected me to represent it. And I ran on serving as a check and balance on the Biden agenda.”
Money, Biden advisers say, was a driving factor in entering the race. The campaign has already entered into a joint finance agreement with 47 of the 50 state Democratic Parties, which will allow it to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars at a time from individual donors.
Top Biden officials dismiss the early concerns from inside the party as sideline sniping. In their view, they rightfully ignored naysayers to keep Mr. Biden in his Delaware basement during the early months of the pandemic, disregarded calls to knock on doors in the fall of 2020 and highlighted threats to democracy in the midterm elections last year despite pleas from many Democrats to focus on the inflation-racked economy.
That string of victories has given Biden aides supreme confidence in their stay-the-course instincts, an ethos shared by Mr. Biden and top White House advisers including Jennifer O’Malley Dillon, Mike Donilon and Anita Dunn.
“We are meeting all of the goals and metrics we’ve set for ourselves to assemble another winning coalition in 2024,” said Kevin Munoz, a campaign spokesman.
Jim Messina, who served as Mr. Obama’s campaign manager in 2012, said the Biden team had some advantages that Mr. Obama did not, including a fully operational Democratic National Committee, which Mr. Obama had allowed to fall into a state of disrepair.
“They’re staffed in the one place they need to be staffed,” Mr. Messina said of the party and its fund-raising operation, which is organizing the New York events.
Polls show that a majority of Democrats want the party to nominate someone other than Mr. Biden. A gloomy Washington Post/ABC News survey released over the weekend found that 58 percent of Democratic-leaning adults felt this way.
When it comes to raising money online, this lack of excitement has been a worry for Biden advisers, especially those who recall his 2019 struggles in that arena against his leading liberal rivals.
Mr. Munoz declined to say how much money the campaign had raised in its first 24 hours, but ActBlue, the online portal for contributions to Democratic candidates, reported $6.1 million in donations in the first 24 hours after Mr. Biden announced his candidacy. That is about the same as the amounts that Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont and former Representative Beto O’Rourke of Texas raised in the first day of their 2020 presidential campaigns.
But not all of those ActBlue donations went to Mr. Biden; they make up the total given to every Democrat in the country that day.
The campaign is preparing to lean heavily on major donors in the first months of the race, and invited top bundlers to Washington on the first weekend of the campaign for a private briefing.
Mr. Katzenberg said the campaign’s fund-raising would rely equally on Mr. Biden’s popularity among Democratic donors and a liberal fear that Mr. Trump could return to the White House.
“The difference between passion and anxiety is not discernible,” Mr. Katzenberg said. “Whether somebody is doing this out of their passion and belief in the president — fantastic. If they’re doing it out of anxiety of what the alternative is — fantastic. The color of the green is the same.”
Last week, Reid Hoffman, the billionaire LinkedIn co-founder and one of the party’s most important financiers, organized a donor briefing at the Rosewood hotel in San Francisco, pulling in several dozen donors for the pro-Biden super PAC American Bridge, according to two attendees.
Notably, the early television ads that the Biden campaign has announced were paid for by the Democratic National Committee, which had $28.7 million on hand at the beginning of April. For now, senior Biden officials are planning to push as many costs as they legally can to the party, which can raise far larger sums. The campaign does not have a physical headquarters yet; for now, aides are working out of the D.N.C.’s building in Washington.
Mr. Biden’s New York trip will include two small fund-raisers that are being pulled together relatively hastily. Tony James, a former top executive at the private equity giant Blackstone, is hosting one event, where tickets begin at $25,000, according to invitations. Donors were told that Pete Buttigieg, the transportation secretary, would also attend, and the goal for the two events was to bring in $3 million, according to a person briefed on the plans.
For now, the White House seems happy to cede the national stage to the Republican primary race. Mr. Biden’s first television interview after his announcement, on MSNBC, was buried at 10 p.m. last Friday.
“It would be unfortunate if they let the Republican nominee govern the conversation on a day-to-day basis,” said Faiz Shakir, the campaign manager for Mr. Sanders’s 2020 bid. “It feels like too much of a wild card to sit back. You’ve got to figure out a way to excite and energize people about your own conversation and to drive Donald Trump into that one.”
Representative Jasmine Crockett, a Texas Democrat, said she had yet to hear any outreach about the president’s re-election bid from Biden campaign aides or the campaign’s co-chairs. She said she had seen little excitement about Mr. Biden in her Dallas-area district and had told worried constituents to get behind the president’s re-election.
“The stakes are too high for us to play chicken with this,” she said. “We all know that we’ve got issues with our family. But at the end of the day, I would not trade my family in for the alternative.”
Mitchell Berger, a South Florida campaign bundler who has been involved in Democratic politics for decades, said the onus should not be on the Biden campaign to generate excitement. He said comparisons to Mr. Obama were not helpful.
“President Biden is an exceptional political actor and he does very well with people, but, you know, the excitement generated by the Obamas is a once-in-a-generation kind of thing,” said Mr. Berger, who attended the campaign’s donor gathering in Washington last month.
Mr. Katzenberg said Mr. Biden’s campaign had made a deliberate choice to begin without a full staff in place. The campaign manager, Julie Chávez Rodríguez, remains in her White House job until next week, and other critical roles, including a finance director and a communications director, remain unfilled.
“It’s not a question of whether it could or couldn’t have been done, it just wasn’t a priority,” Mr. Katzenberg said. “It’s simply not material, let alone essential, that it get done before.”
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