Obama's '08 campaign manager warns Biden: Up your game, now!

David Plouffe, who oversaw Barack Obama’s storied 2008 bid for the White House, says he has an “overarching concern” about Joe Biden’s campaign strategy against a media-savvy incumbent with a large financial advantage. Plouffe said he is particularly alarmed by the former vice president’s failure to leverage social media and dazzling visuals while President Trump dominates headlines during the coronavirus pandemic.

“It’s a challenge for Joe Biden,” Plouffe told “Skullduggery” podcast hosts Michael Isikoff and Daniel Klaidman in an interview. “But Trump gets this, and his campaign gets this: It’s blunt force communication. ... What I’m very worried about is [that] we’re going to see tens of millions of dollars of advertising in battleground states any moment.”

Plouffe said he expects a “massive online advertising onslaught” that “tries to re-create reality” and “hero worship” Trump as a formidable leader throughout the coronavirus crisis. Even allowing for doubts about the administration’s slow response to the coronavirus and the economic recession that has resulted from it, Plouffe said, “this election will be decided on the margins.” 

After a string of primary wins in Florida, Illinois and Arizona on March 17, Biden pulled back from the spotlight, attracting questions about his low public profile as Trump began holding daily press briefings in response to the public health crisis. After his decisive primary victories, Biden never delivered a big speech. He stayed at home in Delaware, webcasting remarks from what Politico called a “low-quality personal computer camera against a straight-out-of-YouTube black backdrop.”

Plouffe was also critical, saying, “Time is of the essence for the Biden campaign to really begin running the general election.” Trump has polled relatively well in the wake of the virus, and even seen a slight uptick in support, which Plouffe attributed to citizens wanting “our president to succeed.”

The unprecedented scale of the COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly shortened the campaign season this cycle, Plouffe said, making it more important for Biden to get a running start. Campaigning won’t intensify until as late as May, he said, so Biden must become more visible on multiple platforms in the near term to stay in the public eye.

Trump is well financed and knows how to use the media to his advantage, Plouffe warned.

“The Trump campaign has a huge organization [and] all the money in the world to drive turnout as high as they can in every battleground state, which is what I’m most concerned about,” he said. 

“The Biden campaign has an acute need to really up their game and understand how people receive information today,” Plouffe said. “It’s a weakness of most Democrats.”

An early pioneer in how to use the internet to build a winning coalition, Plouffe was most critical of what he regards as Biden’s old-fashioned media strategy and his team’s lack of apparent understanding of social media. 

“If you’ve got something to say or something to announce, you better think first about, ‘How am I going to do it on each of those platforms’ — and each of those platforms is different,” he said. “I have an overarching concern, independent of the coronavirus, that we really have to make sure that the Biden campaign and progressives are meeting people where they are in the year 2020.”

Plouffe called on Democratic voters and organizers to get moving even without encouragement from the nominee.

Joe Biden speaks on Wednesday during a virtual press briefing. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

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“Everyone’s got their role to fight the social media wars, which we have to do because we don’t have Fox and Sinclair and Breitbart and all of these online publications that seem to pop up every day that the right uses in a coordinated way,” Plouffe said. “I really hope that any day we’re going to all get emails from the Biden campaign, ‘Hey, we need you to write postcards.’”

Plouffe recently published two books, “A Citizen’s Guide to Beating Donald Trump” and “Ripples of Hope.” Both books focus on how Democrats can take back the White House in the 2020 election (the latter title is meant for a preteen audience). He emphasized the importance of all Democrats engaging more than they are currently, particularly on social media. 

“The primary is over,” Plouffe said. “Jump into your game here.”

Trump’s use of television throughout the coronavirus crisis is simply an advantage any sitting president has, Plouffe said, adding that he is not worried about Trump’s center-stage role in communicating the federal response. Plouffe said Biden can be himself, as his familiarity to voters and “fundamental goodness” will be “a comfortable place to go for swing voters.”

But Biden, 77, needs to bring his messaging up to date with online memes, GIFs and short video clips. The Democratic officeholders who powered their candidacies in 2018 with technology are “normal people, not career politicians,” Plouffe said, adding that they may be on the presidential stage by 2024 and 2028. 

Democrats have a tricky few months in front of them because they will need to plan for both a virtual convention and an in-person convention, Plouffe said. Biden also needs to prepare for two debate scenarios because Trump may decline to participate, causing Biden to lose “big moments in a campaign.” While he believes Trump will debate Biden in the end, an event he likened to a “geriatric cage match,” Plouffe said the campaign still needs to plan for the possibility that Trump backs out and have a plan B for creating commensurate drama. 

Plouffe did praise the former vice president for recently agreeing to more TV interviews but said he remains glaringly absent from YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok, which he called vital platforms for driving turnout, especially among younger voters. Snapchat and TikTok are particularly popular with the young voters Biden has so far had trouble attracting support from. TikTok, a China-based social media platform, doesn’t accept advertising and promotes content based on whether it goes viral.

“They really need to do a lot more videos, really think Facebook and Instagram and YouTube first,” Plouffe said of Biden’s team. “I’m a little worried about that. They do statements, they did a conference call last week, now they’re doing interviews — interviews are good because they’re video, and those clips can be edited and put out for reach. But I think they need to think much more social media first. And I would say that without the coronavirus situation. ... The public square now is Facebook, Instagram and YouTube and, for younger people, Snapchat and TikTok.”

Trump’s team has long spoken publicly about its plans for an expensive “shock-and-awe media campaign to try to make it hard for Biden to take the stage as the nominee,” Plouffe said. While the coronavirus has delayed that launch, which he called a “break” for Biden, Plouffe said it is coming soon and Democrats must be ready. 

Regardless of what many Democrats and public health officials have called a botched response to the coronavirus, Plouffe underscored that the Republican electorate is firmly behind the president.

“Trump’s support numbers among Republicans,” he said, “are just rock solid.”

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