White House officials and senior Democrats believe the party’s better-than-expected fall has relieved considerable pressure on Joe Biden to act quickly on a reelection bid.
But they’re still making moves.
Biden aides have been working with outside advisers to help sketch out components of a reelection ramp up, including Obama alum Jim Messina, with whom the president has discussed polling in recent weeks, according to two people familiar with his involvement. Messina did not return calls for comment.
They are also reengaging donors and zeroing in on key staff roles and hires to fortify a unit that could operate outside the close-knit group that runs operations at the White House. They’re further along on finalizing a headquarters for the campaign, too, with Wilmington, Del., the likely destination, although Philadelphia has not been ruled out.
“We’re aware that there is no deficit of people who speculate, but very few individuals are actually knowledgeable about anything of that nature,” White House spokesperson Andrew Bates said.
Those in the White House have proceeded like Biden will run. His family will play an outsized role in making the final decision and first lady Jill Biden, initially reluctant, is said to have warmed to another campaign.
There were initial family discussions over Thanksgiving in Nantucket and more are expected over Christmas. The anticipated timeline, according to those close to the deliberations, is for the campaign to launch towards the end of the first quarter of 2023 — after the president’s State of the Union address and the introduction of his budget.
Those familiar with the planning stress they feel no pressure to move more quickly. Biden world officials believe that Democratic wins in the midterm elections have quieted naysayers. More specifically, they argue the president’s fall momentum has stopped potential rivals from pushing forward.
Now any talk inside the White House about the 2024 primary has turned instead to “if he doesn’t run, what kind of circus is released?” said one Democrat familiar with the White House’s thinking.
The posture reflects a new, more confident mood among Biden and his advisers as he prepares for a likely reelection bid. Largely gone is chatter around whether Biden would step aside for a new generation of Democrats. That’s been replaced by maneuvers by the president to position himself for the rigors of another run.
Biden re-shaped the next primary schedule in his own image by moving to put South Carolina first. He has also been traveling to key battleground states including Arizona, which he steered clear of ahead of the midterms.
“The signals are pretty strong that he’s running,” said Joe Trippi, a Democratic operative who managed Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign. “I don’t see any reason for an official announcement any time soon. But if you look at what he's been doing, he’s already told us.”
Donors are still being directed to the Democratic National Committee and the outside Building Back Together outfit, and they say there hasn't been a proactive move to start raising money for the campaign. That’s typical, some operatives said, of the post-election period when candidates and campaigns often give donors a break. But many have still seen an uptick in calls and emails from Biden aides and party allies — and hundreds of invitations have gone out to the various White House and other related holiday parties in Washington to keep supporters engaged.
Biden has also been road-testing new variations on a possible re-election pitch that combines the coming effects of three huge spending packages involving roads, computer chips and climate protections. And according to two people familiar with recent conversations, senior advisers to the president who will be closely involved in guiding an eventual campaign have been calling party operatives in recent weeks to begin conversations about convention planning and building a national field operation, something that was scaled down during the 2020 campaign due to the limitations imposed by the pandemic.
“He’s got a lot of time,” said Joel Benenson, the veteran Democratic strategist. He suggested Biden could use the coming months to further establish his footing on top priorities around the economy and downplay the need to act right away on 2024 “in a way that could be very Bidenesque and connect with families and people.”
Of the timeframe facing the president, Benenson added: “It’s the political conversation that insiders are having. I just don’t see any reason to accelerate it — on anybody’s part.”
While Biden may have more time to announce a reelection bid, it is not infinite. Biden aides have frequently pointed to the timing of President Barack Obama’s re-election announcement as a guide. That came on April 4, 2011. But the difference, some aides have reluctantly acknowledged, is that there were never any questions as to whether Obama would run again.
Senior Democrats believe if Biden were to wait too long to make an announcement, it would renew and hasten questions surrounding his age (he turned 80 late last month). They also caution that the favorable political environment he currently enjoys could shift quickly, though White House aides are bullish about the work done and how it’s shaping the landscape.
“The same coalition President Biden built to expand the map for Democrats in 2020 powered our historic midterm wins, including unprecedented youth turnout,” said Bates. “At the same time, the president galvanized independent voters with a message widely adopted across the party, highlighting the differences between his values and ultra MAGA Republicans’ agenda.”
Biden aides and allies are loath to discuss names publicly, but in recent weeks the White House has taken subtle steps to try and elevate former President Donald Trump by leaning into the rash of unfavorable storylines involving him. Many of Biden’s closest advisers anxiously believe that if the president opts against another bid, it would leave an unsettled and untested field of contenders to fend off Trump’s return. Others aligned with the effort openly revel in the idea of the former president maintaining a presence on the political landscape.
“Trump is doing a damn good job of making sure the Republican Party will be a shitshow,” said Dick Harpootlian, a longtime South Carolina Democrat and an early and loyal Biden backer.
Trippi noted the GOP writ large has the same problem it’s had now for three cycles.
“They can’t win with him and they can’t win without him,” he said, noting that if Trump’s MAGA base doesn’t turn out and a challenger like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis were to defeat Trump in a primary, “God bless ’em because it’ll be the last thing they do.“
“Does anyone really believe Trump could lose the nomination and then tell his base he lost fair and square so go out and vote for the Republican nominee?” he pointed out. “So let them have that fight, because I don’t see a winner coming out of it either way.”
Biden does have some major decisions to make around the structure of a reelection bid.
Chief among them is how to balance operations between the White House and campaign headquarters when the latter finally launches. Veterans of past presidential reelection campaigns note that much of what the campaign is judged by originates at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., making it critical that trusted aides are in place and communication is smooth.
“There were certain equities in limited supply, starting with the president's time,” said David Axelrod, Obama’s longtime adviser. “There was a lot of cross pollination between the campaign and the White House.”
What Biden seems almost certain to avoid, as of now, is a high-profile primary challenger. Those discussed as alternatives, California Gov. Gavin Newsom and New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, among others, have notably re-upped their support for him. And Biden’s play to promote South Carolina to the front of the line amounted to a show of force to close off any avenues for a long-shot challenge.
“One risk point has always been early momentum from insurgent campaigns and Biden has pretty much ended all of that,” said Jim Hodges, the former South Carolina governor.
Democrats that still harbored doubts about how successful another Biden run would be have come away from conversations with his aides convinced he will launch one anyway. And Hodges said he’s heard the same thing privately from Democratic elected officials who he’s casually been in touch with for months.
“Now, it’s even firmer about their support and their belief that he’s going to run,” he said.