Just under one year before the presidential election, Democrats should be concerned but not panicked about President Biden’s standing. As last week’s results demonstrated, abortion remains the most potent issue with which to defeat Republicans. And if former President Donald Trump is the GOP nominee, his return to the spotlight and potential felony convictions will ensure that Biden is compared to the alternative, not the almighty, as the president likes to say.
For Biden to win reelection, however, he must make changes. I spoke with dozens of Democrats and anti-Trump Republicans about what the president can do on personnel, presentation and strategy to improve his prospects. Their suggestions (pleadings?) are below.
The level of despair was striking. Since beginning this column a year ago, I’ve written repeatedly about the chasm between what Democrats say in private versus public about Biden. Yet perhaps not since Trump’s 2016 election have the party’s leaders and lawmakers been so alarmed.
What’s notable is both the uniformity of these anxieties — there’s no faction in denial — and how they mirror the discontent of the broader public.
Far from being merely the stuff of “Beltway chatter,” as Biden’s aides dismiss any criticism, there’s no divergence between Democratic elites and the electorate. That’s because the main causes for concern are clear as day: Biden’s age and the cost of living.
The president and his high command bridle at critique — and understandably so. Since Biden signaled just over five years ago he’d likely run for president, he’s faced skepticism about his ability to win the primary, claim the general election, pass a bipartisan agenda and defy expectations in the midterm elections. At every turn, he’s outfoxed the wise guys, as he’d call them.
So why listen now?
Because Biden is indeed in peril. The New York Times battleground survey was no outlier, as made clear by a new poll from Bloomberg-Morning Consult that reflected the same cold fact: the president begins his re-election as the underdog.
For Biden to use fundraisers, as he did Thursday, to deny his difficulties and complain about press coverage may be therapeutic, but it doesn’t make him any likelier to defeat Trump once more.
2024 will be an extraordinary election, and it demands extraordinary measures.
That’s in part for reasons Biden refuses to accept: his capacity to do the job. The oldest president in history when he first took the oath, Biden will not be able to govern and campaign in the manner of previous incumbents. He simply does not have the capacity to do it, and his staff doesn’t trust him to even try, as they make clear by blocking him from the press. Biden’s bid will give new meaning to a Rose Garden campaign, and it requires accommodation to that unavoidable fact of life.
Moreover, and on this Biden would agree, this election will be exceptional because of the threat Trump poses. The former president is an exiled strongman who’s taken over a traditional political party and is attempting to reclaim office to consolidate power and punish his enemies with little regard for the Constitution. Just ask him.
With the increasingly likely possibility that this will be a multi-candidate election, and Biden at risk of being denied the nose-holding votes he needs from independents and pre-Trump Republicans, the president’s margin for error is nil.
If Biden thinks the country is on the line, he should act like it.
So let’s get to business.
First, sorry, Democratic daydreamers and terminally online Republican presidential candidates, there’s no smoke-filled room session on the Biden calendar. The Obamas are not going to pop over from Martha’s Vineyard to Nantucket this Thanksgiving to talk Joe out of the race and plot the Michelle-led restoration any more than Trump is going to serve vegan turkey at Mar-a-Lago.
Absent a health issue or some other act of God, Biden isn’t bowing out, and he’s not going to dump Kamala Harris. We’ll skip the Aaron Sorkin cosplay here.
However, if Democrats need to accept a replay of Biden-Harris, the White House must come to terms with the need to make changes, some of which I’m told are already in motion.
On Friday, Biden’s campaign team briefed the president, first lady, vice president and senior White House aides about plans for the rest of this calendar year on organization, advertising and messaging. The president made clear he’s willing to increase his focus on Trump. But he also did little to hide his frustration that voters don’t grasp his accomplishments and pressed his advisers to do more to convey his record, citing the importance of testimonials.
But change must start with Biden himself.
Enough with the bravado and denialism. His aides are under no illusion about their challenge. Even some of his most committed loyalists told me he needs to make changes.
Yet the president often displays his resentments in ways that do nothing to move public opinion and only delay needed adjustments. And some of his younger aides mimic his snark.
Calling David Axelrod “a prick,” as a person who has heard Biden use the word says he does in private, is not a strategy to win 270 electoral votes. And repeating a PG version of the same animus in public while litigating polling with the White House press corps also won’t make Biden’s reelection any likelier.
Shaming or ignoring dissent doesn’t make it go away. Biden, with his capacious character and notable lack of Irish Alzheimer’s, is capable of embracing his skeptics. Look how he’s courted and won over Senator Bernie Sanders, which helped preempt any primary challenge from the left. And compare that to how he dismissed Rep. Dean Phillips’s concerns this year and then dodged Phillips’s calls before he entered the race last month.
Last week’s entry of Jill Stein as a Green Party candidate and Sen. Joe Manchin’s new presidential tease should focus the mind. Biden can do little about Stein, but he must smother Manchin with kindness and keep him in the Democratic tent. While he’s at it, the president and his top aides should also woo Manchin’s Republican friend (and third-party temptress) Mitt Romney.
Neither senator wants their legacy to be abetting Trump’s return. But that’s not enough: Biden must bring them into his corner. They must actively make the case that voting for Biden is the only way to block Trump.
And on this score, why is Biden not doing more to secure the support of Liz Cheney? She has made clear she’s determined to stop Trump’s return to the Oval Office. Yet Cheney is still publicly keeping open a presidential bid of her own. Biden can let her publish her book next month, but then she should be brought into the fold. Whether it’s called Republicans Against Trump or Republicans for Biden, Cheney must be deployed and do all she can do to bring other prominent figures with her, including her father and former President George W. Bush.
Democrats are sufficiently alarmed by the possibility a No Labels candidate could hand the election to Trump. But the way to preemptively undermine No Labels is to dispatch Democrats such as Manchin or Republicans like Romney and Cheney to articulate the risk they pose. These individuals may be reluctant to do so, but they can be prodded, charmed and shown the data detailing the danger of inaction.
That’s hardly the only big swing Democrats hope Biden will take.
No ambassador has seemed to remake the role as Biden’s envoy to Japan, Rahm Emanuel. Yet the best service Rahm-san can offer Biden isn’t using his post in Asia to forge Pacific alliances and taunt the Russians and Chinese. The president should call Emanuel back stateside and have him chair the reelection.
Doing so would demonstrate a willingness by Biden to broaden his inner circle, create a manic urgency in the campaign that is Emanuel’s trademark and, by elevating one of the most ferocious operatives of our times, signal that when Trump goes low the Democrats will go fucking lower.
The last president to lose reelection before Trump, George H.W. Bush, was tagged as a foreign policy-focused leader who waited too long to summon his old hand, James A. Baker III, back from diplomatic service to the campaign. Biden should not make that mistake.
Speaking of putting the best team forward, Jennifer O’Malley Dillon should either leave the White House and formally manage the campaign or be given the role David Plouffe had in 2012 and oversee the reelection full time from the West Wing. Having taken over Biden’s 2020 bid, O’Malley Dillon has the most high-level campaign experience of any member of the president’s inner circle. Because of her role in the last campaign and her earlier years as a strategist, she has a deep understanding of the organizational (and organizing) demands of modern elections.
There’s been chatter for months that Biden’s alter ego and ad man, Mike Donilon, will leave the White House and go to the campaign. As with O’Malley Dillon, why are Donilon’s talents not yet entirely directed to the reelection?
The White House must move to the political equivalent of a war footing. Biden should lure back former Chief of Staff Ron Klain in some capacity. Few modern chiefs could do as much simultaneously as Klain, and he could be particularly useful as the left grows restive over Biden’s Israel tilt.
On the topic of the Mideast, once the Israeli incursion into Gaza ends there will presumably be some steps toward diplomacy. Biden cannot run the country, run for reelection and oversee a new Mideast peace process. He should appoint a pair of high-level envoys for the post: Bill and Hillary Clinton.
Dispatching the Clintons would show Biden’s commitment to a resolution, offer the former first couple a final mission that could be the capstone of their public lives and help channel their talents in more constructive ways than letting them chew over polling data and rage about Trump. Clinton shared credit with former Senator George Mitchell for landing the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland, and Biden can do the same if there’s even a temporary peace in the Holy Land.
It may sound far-fetched, but this is no time for small thinking. The moment demands all hands on deck.
Biden cannot dedicate himself to the campaign like he could have as a younger man. So make use of all those next-generation stars scheming for the presidency and thirsting to be on camera. The way to win favor with tomorrow’s Democratic primary voters is to stop Trump now. So let them compete for who can emerge as the best advocate for Biden and against Trump.
Some of these would-be candidates are coming to the GOP debates, but that’s not nearly enough. The governors, the senators, the cabinet secretaries and the infrastructure czar should be the faces of Biden’s campaign, along with the president and vice-president. The message: with Democrats remaining in power, it’s not just an 82-year-old at the helm but also this group — Team Normal when compared to Trump and his Star Wars bar term two.
Same for the party’s talented operatives, too. Many Democrats want to help — ask them. Their clients can wait if it means preserving the republic.
The national parties are shrunken entities in this era. Yet a sitting president can empower his party chair. That has not happened with the DNC. The better-than-expected midterms may have saved Jaime Harrison’s job, but that’s no reason to retain a chair who has little footprint with the public or donors. Biden needs a more prominent figure in the job. An obvious choice would be former Biden White House aide and Louisiana Rep. Cedric Richmond, who the president trusts.
While we’re at it, make better use of the Congressional Black Caucus broadly. Biden, for good reason, values his friendship with South Carolina Rep. James Clyburn. But the president must enlist younger figures like Senators Raphael Warnock and Cory Booker, and Representatives Marc Veasey, Lauren Underwood and Joe Neguse in the way he did Maxwell Frost on guns.
And if the right-wing fever swamps want to think Barack Obama is secretly in charge, well, let them. The country likes the former president and his ability to break through on the campaign stump is unparalleled.
More than personnel, though, Biden must move dramatically to reshape his appeal to voters.
Perhaps the most overwhelming economic messaging advice I picked up from Democrats was for him to heave “Bidenomics” into the dumpster. Attempting to make voters believe something they don’t is folly. Attaching your name to that strategy borders on masochistic.
At a time when people are paying more for housing, gas and groceries, focusing on job growth and the unemployment rate is ineffective. Use that sense of empathy and acknowledge voter concerns about inflation. Take steps, with executive actions, to address costs. And brag about what you have done, not because it’ll make voters believe they’re wrong about how they feel but because it reminds them you’ve been fighting — and in the face of opposition.
Which raises one of the most vital imperatives: Go on the offensive against the GOP. Where are the frontal attacks on Republicans? Especially with Biden at risk of defeat because of slippage among working-class voters of all races, it’s confounding that he doesn’t lash the opposition for siding with the wealthy.
Both on the stump, with his surrogates and via paid advertising, the president must give voters that choice-not-a-referendum when it comes to the economy. Lord knows he’s happy to offer a Scranton-versus-Park-Avenue message, but it must be consistent and unrelenting.
Biden is appalled by Trump’s conduct and the specter of an authoritarian-curious presidency. Yet while the president relishes delivering high church sermons against same (with help from his Episcopalian muse), he also appreciates what didn’t work for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and what did work for him in 2020.
The country knows exactly who Donald Trump is, many are unbothered by it and no amount of scolding will make them say: oh, wow, I guess he is a bad guy. (Leave that to a jury, coming soon near you.)
What makes this even easier is Trump has a record. The character attacks of 2016 aren’t necessary. High-information voters who are animated norm breaking are the ones powering Democratic success in special and off-year elections.
More potent is elevating (uplifting, as some of Biden’s young aides may say) how Trump actually governed. He may have run as a populist, but once in office he bowed to conventional Republicans and let Paul Ryan and Wall Street run the economy.
There’s a reason why Democrats were forever petrified Trump would pair his nativism with economic nationalism. But he let the Old Guard shape his appointments — Antonin Scalia’s son as Labor Secretary! — and never did get to confronting big pharma, eliminating carried interest or making it easier to join a union.
And when it comes to the best issue Democrats have on their side, Trump is single-handedly responsible for the end of legal abortion in America. It was his three Supreme Court justices who delivered the crucial votes to overturn Roe vs Wade. And now, recognizing the issue as a political loser and never being fully committed in the first place, Trump is running like a scalded dog away from his signature achievement. Yet he’s on tape boasting how he’s the architect of Roe’s demise.
As one canny Democratic strategist all but begged: Talk about abortion every day. No, Biden isn’t comfortable with the issue, but other Democrats are — the vice president and women governors come to mind. Put abortion rights on as many state ballots as possible next year as a turnout lever the same way Republicans did with traditional marriage in 2004.
Beyond taking it to Trump, it’s puzzling the White House doesn’t do more to spotlight its opponents and politically useful issues. Alabama Sen. Tommy Tuberville is dividing Senate Republicans by holding up military promotions over abortion. Here’s a convergence of a galvanizing issue for core Democrats plus swing voters along with a way to sow doubts about Republicans’ commitment to the military.
How has Biden not made the GOP pay more for Tuberville’s blockade? He or Harris should go to a military base town (say one in Georgia or Arizona), stand with veterans and lambaste him. Or if they wanted to be even more creative, they could show up outside Auburn’s Jordan-Hare Stadium and send the same message to “Coach.”
The point is to be more aggressive and show some imagination. They have the daring — Biden just stood on a Michigan picket line in a union cap!
But there’s so many more ways to lean in.
Why aren’t the president or vice president convening Jewish and Muslim students alike on campuses who have been targeted for harassment and showing solidarity?
Biden delivered a powerful speech from the Oval Office on Israel and Ukraine, issues he’s passionate about, but how about laying down a message on immigration and the border, which he’s not as versed in but must confront?
And while most Americans recoil from Trump’s vow to shoot shoplifters in the back, they also are alarmed by videos of stores being looted in cities across the country. Why aren’t the president or vice president linking arms with store owners, employees and police departments? Biden memorably denounced lawlessness following the 2020 riots, and his campaign swiftly used the footage in ads, so they understand the importance of the message.
I wrote an entire column on Biden’s seeming unwillingness to address questions about his age, perhaps the biggest challenge he faces. There are suggestions from Democrats therein. Here’s one more: Put Biden in settings that play to his strengths, which may be risky but which will capture his decency rather than his infirmities: A casino stroll and sit-down conversation with the (heavily Hispanic) culinary union in Las Vegas; a town hall with Arab-Americans in Dearborn, Mich.; an HBCU football tailgate (think Georgia).
And it may be the most painful act he takes as president, but Biden should clear the air the best he can when it comes to his son Hunter’s business dealings. Whenever Hunter Biden has a legal resolution, which the president may want to encourage sooner rather than later, schedule an interview with this White House’s favorite “60 Minutes” interlocutor and answer every question.
Lastly, to paraphrase a future Middle East envoy, voters care more about their future than your past. Tell them what you will do in a second term. Be forward-looking. And contrast your vision for the next four years with that of the candidate who’s, literally folks, running on retribution.
Codifying Roe and lower drug prices versus bureaucratic purges and immigrant detention camps. And, yes, take some risks that are out of your comfort zone but can motivate the disaffected. Legal weed? I’ll toke to that.
As one shrewd Democrat argued, the party enters 2024 with advantages on message, money, organization and brand. Their problem is the messenger. He can and should try to fix that.