Biden allies say enthusiasm gap fueled by lack of engagement, ‘personal touch’

·6 min read

Allies to President Biden are voicing frustration about the political operation inside the White House as the midterm elections draw closer and the president readies for a possible reelection bid.

The allies say the lack of a “personal touch” from Biden has left them underwhelmed, with calls going unanswered, simple requests lacking a reply and little — if any — proactive outreach from staff inside the White House.

“The most important thing is people just want to feel engaged,” said a longtime Biden ally, one of a dozen sources interviewed by The Hill who say Biden needs to do more to build support for the party and for his own political prospects to successfully run for reelection. They argue the problems are exacerbating an enthusiasm gap between the two parties that could hurt Democrats in the midterms and beyond.

The ally pointed to the success of the political operation inside the Clinton White House in making sure that members of Congress, donors, key figures in trade organizations and leaders of outside groups were all included in conversations and occasionally invited to the White House.

“One of the things the Clintons did really well was make sure people were taken care of,” the ally added. “They need to do better … so, in March of next year, when [the Biden team] announce a reelection campaign and they start making calls to donors and political types, people are excited to take those calls.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the outreach problems, because some of the larger traditional events that cater to those in the president’s orbit — including his inauguration, holiday parties and state dinners — haven’t been held. White House aides have sought to hold some of the events, including the Easter Egg Roll earlier this year, and have vowed to bring back other functions in the coming months.

Democratic strategist Jim Manley and other political observers said they were sympathetic to the logistics around the pandemic. Still, with Biden’s approval ratings averaging around 38 percent, they say, the White House needs to do better.

“Given the president’s approval rating, I’d think they’d be working in overdrive to conduct outreach to as many surrogates as possible,” Manley said. “As far as I can tell, it’s not happening.”

“A lot of those surrogates are being left on the sidelines,” he added.

Biden’s problems aren’t limited to his general low approval ratings, either. Various polls over the summer also show a majority of Democrats don’t want him to be their party’s nominee in 2024.

The White House has sought to remedy some of its political woes. Anita Dunn, the political veteran who served as a senior adviser during Biden’s presidential campaign and during the early months of the presidency, returned to the White House in May to advance Biden’s communications and policy strategy.

And much of the political apparatus has been managed by trusted hands Steve Ricchetti, Biden’s longtime adviser, and Jen O’Malley Dillon, who ran Biden’s general election campaign in 2020.

Still, one longtime Biden aide acknowledged a persistent bottleneck of sorts in decisionmaking as aides in the Office of Political Strategy and Outreach handle a flurry of requests.

“They can’t do anything because everything is run through Ricchetti and Anita,” the longtime aide said. “They have little authority to make decisions.

The backlog of unanswered calls and emails can be so trying at times that allies reach out to outside advisers and other allies for help.

“I’ve gotten calls from multiple people who can’t get their calls returned,” the longtime aide added. “It’s symptomatic of how the Biden team is run. It’s very top heavy. You can’t get a yes or a no. … ‘Are you going to do this trip or not?’ … They have donors they’ve known for years who don’t get calls returned.”

“They’re not getting answers in a timely manner,” the longtime aide added. “They’re not engaging with the DNC [Democratic National Committee] in a timely manner or any other outside groups trying to help the president.”

“At the end of the day, you have to give these people you gave these jobs to the authority to make decisions,” the adviser said. “You have to empower these people.”

In an interview with Puck News earlier this month, Greg Schultz, who served as Biden’s campaign manager during the Democratic primary in 2020 and also served as the president’s top political aide in the lead-up to the race, said Biden could benefit from better outreach to lawmakers.

“He’s got a lot of friends out there,” Schultz said. “A great group of those House members who he campaigned for in 2016 and 2018, many of whom might lose their seats in the midterms. Those members are celebrating the progress they have made, often bipartisanly, whether it’s bipartisan support for Ukraine, the bipartisan infrastructure package, sometimes bipartisan support of a Supreme Court nominee.”

“When Biden is doing policy and politics, the stronger coordination he could have with those candidates and those caucuses, the stronger for everyone,” Schultz added.

Former President Obama was also criticized by Democrats for a lack of political outreach and engagement with lawmakers in the early years of his presidency. Subsequently, he was also blamed for ignoring the party apparatus and focusing on his own outside organizations.

But for Biden, who has had relationships on and off Capitol Hill, his allies have expected more.

“He knows a lot of people, he has a lot of friends,” said one longtime Democratic National Committee member. “But they need to be better at nurturing those relationships.

“This isn’t about rich people with bruised egos,” the member said. “I just don’t think there’s any engagement. We need that engagement now. There’s such a need for ground support right now.”

One Democratic operative suggested that the administration is only reaching out to groups and individuals who were on Team Biden from the beginning.

“I’ve talked to dozens of operatives and activists who were on other campaigns in the primary and have not yet been invited to the White House or gotten a call from the White House,” the operative said. “This is particularly a problem with groups that are truly lagging, like Latinos, young folks and progressives.”

But even staunch Biden supporters say they feel kept out of the loop.

Asked what the White House could improve in the coming months, the longtime aide replied, “Just be responsive. Even if the answer is no, be responsive.

“And it wouldn’t hurt to be a little proactive, too.”

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