Biden quietly but clearly prepares a potential reelection bid

Washington Post photo by Demetrius Freeman
Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden speaks at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds in St. Paul, Minn., on Oct. 30, 2020.

President Biden and first lady Jill Biden have been meeting since September with senior advisers at the White House residence to prepare a potential 2024 reelection campaign, according to multiple people familiar with the planning.

The meetings of what advisers describe as a “very small group” come as the Democratic National Committee has been making plans to respond on President Biden’s behalf to former president Donald Trump or other potential presidential contenders who could announce campaigns in the coming months. The national party is also drafting plans to reengage with grass-roots supporters from the 2020 campaign who are not involved in the Democratic midterm effort, the people said.

Biden, who would turn 86 before the end of a second term, has not yet made a final decision on another presidential campaign, his advisers say, but he has indicated publicly and privately that he intends to run barring an unforeseen event. He has also suggested that he will be more eager to run if Trump gets into the race – as the former president has repeatedly suggested he will.

Top White House advisers Anita Dunn, Mike Donilon and Jen O’Malley Dillon, who played senior roles in Biden’s 2020 campaign, have been involved in the planning discussions with Biden, as has Chief of Staff Ron Klain. While Biden’s advisers have been focused on the midterms, Dunn and O’Malley Dillon have spoken with veterans of the past two Democratic presidential reelection campaigns, including Barack Obama’s campaign managers, David Plouffe and Jim Messina, and two veterans of Bill Clinton’s administration, Bruce Reed and Steve Ricchetti, who now work in the White House.

Biden finds himself in a turbulent environment for a president in the middle of his first term, facing questions about his age and calls within the Democratic Party for a new generation of leadership. But Biden and many other Democrats view Trump as an existential threat to the country, and Biden and his allies believe he is best positioned to defeat the former president.

For now, the strategy of Biden’s inner circle is to prepare as vigorously as possible for a reelection run, even if the possibility remains that he will step back at the last moment.

As it stands, no prominent elected Democrat has publicly expressed interest in challenging Biden for the nomination, although some unelected figures, such as author Marianne Williamson and former Ohio state senator Nina Turner, have hinted at a run. Party leaders have made clear they will side with Biden if he faces a primary challenge and will stage a fully competitive nomination process, for example featuring televised debates, only if he decides against seeking a second term.

But some Democratic strategists have grown concerned that a potential announcement by Trump shortly after the midterms – followed by months of delay before Biden’s announcement – could put the party at a serious disadvantage. Biden is not expected to formally declare his plans until early next year, though Biden advisers say no timetable has been set. Biden’s team concluded in 2020 that Trump hurt his chances by starting his reelection effort shortly after taking office.

“We are going to have two or three months with essentially one hand tied behind our back, because even if we are running at full speed we still will not have a candidate,” said one Democratic presidential strategist, who like more than a dozen other strategists interviewed for this report spoke on the condition of anonymity to comment on politically sensitive issues.

“The public indecision of the president is going to dominate all the conversations inside the party,” this person continued. “And if Trump announces, the hysteria is only going to increase.”

Biden advisers counter that they are well positioned for what they expect to be a drawn-out and bitterly fought Republican primary. Biden intends to leave the country shortly after the midterms, traveling to a climate change conference in Egypt and a Group of 20 summit in Indonesia.

“The president is going to be out there doing what the president does best, which is being president, regardless,” one Biden adviser said. “He’s going to be on the international stage in a position of leadership doing things that actually are critical to the United States of America and the people who live here.”

The adviser added, “The reality is that, you know, the Republican field will also start taking shape, but they actually will be running against each other.”

Much of the initial political effort in the 2024 cycle will be handled by the Democratic National Committee, which has spent more than a year preparing for a Biden reelection campaign by expanding its data operations, investing in battleground states and researching the backgrounds of potential Republican rivals. The DNC historically functions as an arm of the president’s political operation when a Democrat is in the White House.

A staff of nearly 40 people began monitoring and preparing research books on a wide range of potential GOP candidates in 2021, including Trump, former vice president Mike Pence, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and South Dakota Gov. Kristi L. Noem, according to a Democratic strategist familiar with the planning.

Biden’s lists of 2020 campaign donors and volunteers have formed the basis of the party’s midterm effort, with more than 200,000 trained volunteers and $155 million in receipts from donors that the party attributes to Biden’s fundraising base, according to a recent memo from Sam Cornale, the DNC’s executive director.

The national party has also prepared a budget to fund the hiring of new spokespeople for Democrats over the coming months in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina, the four states where Republicans will start their nomination fight, the strategist said. They will be tasked with speaking out publicly about the Republican primary candidates as the GOP field develops.

“Any Republican who decides to jump into their dumpster fire primary can count on the Democratic National Committee to aggressively take them on, define them early, and remind voters what the MAGA Republican Party stands for,” Cornale said in a statement.

No decisions have been made about who would fill senior jobs in a potential Biden reelection campaign. Dunn and O’Malley Dillon are now expected to remain at the White House, leaving others to formally run the campaign if Biden moves forward, say people familiar with the discussions.

Decisions have also not been made about where the possible campaign will be located, but Democrats widely expect it to be based in or along the “Acela” corridor – either in the Washington area, in Wilmington, Del., or in Philadelphia, where the 2020 campaign was based.

Biden advisers, in coordination with the DNC, have also been experimenting with organizing strategies for the next campaign, especially given the changes wrought by the pandemic. “There’s a lot we’re learning post-covid in this election cycle about what’s working and what’s not working and who does what and how it fits best,” another Biden adviser said.

At the same time, Democrats have begun discussions about the network of outside groups that would support Biden’s campaign by raising and spending unlimited amounts of money.

Future Forward, a group that spent $118 million in the final months of the 2020 campaign to support Biden, is likely to play a prominent role in television advertising. Priorities USA, which has supported every Democratic presidential candidate since 2012, is preparing to be a digital advertising resource. American Bridge, which focused on working-class voters in the Midwest in 2020, is looking to take on a similar role, according to people familiar with the discussions.

A top focus for Biden’s circle – and a key factor in their deliberations and planning – is Trump, who could announce his own campaign as early as November, according to a his advisers. In recent weeks, Trump has begun to behave more like a candidate for office as he has traveled the country to support Republicans in this election cycle.

He recently hired Chris LaCivita, a veteran GOP strategist, to lead one of his political groups, Make America Great Again Inc., giving LaCivita a possible steppingstone for a senior role in his next campaign, according to people familiar with the plans. The group has been running advertisements critical of Biden in Nevada and Pennsylvania.

“Send Biden a message. Defeat Catherine Cortez Masto,” says the narrator of the spot running in Nevada against the incumbent Democratic senator.

Trump plans to return on Thursday to Iowa, the first GOP presidential caucus state, for a rally to benefit Sen. Charles E. Grassley and Gov. Kim Reynolds, who are both expected to win reelection. Potential Trump rivals, including Pence and Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), have repeatedly visited the state over the past two years.

On the Democratic side, multiple elected officials are positioned to jump into a presidential nomination fight if Biden decides against running. But there has been little appetite for a direct challenge to Biden, and many of his previous rivals, including Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), say they support his reelection.

One possible exception is Williamson, the author and spiritual leader who ran for president in 2020. She founded an “exploratory campaign” this summer.

“Explorers explore,” she wrote to The Washington Post in a text message when asked about the effort.

Another possible contender, Ohio’s Turner, teased a possible presidential run after she lost a House primary in Ohio this spring. She told The Post on Sunday that she is focused on the midterm elections, arguing for a more aggressive effort in the party to tackle corporate greed and “secure more direct relief to workers.”

“We should be blowing the GOP out of the water right now instead of being statistically tied in most places,” Turner said. “If we deliver for the people today, 2024 will take care of itself.”

The Biden team’s preparations have not quelled some Democrats’ concerns over whether Biden is their best choice to run in 2024, and a poor midterm performance by the party, even if historically typical, could reignite calls for him to step aside. Rep. Tim Ryan, the Democratic Senate nominee in Ohio, and Reps. Dean Phillips and Angie Craig of Minnesota have all said or suggested Biden should not run again.

A Washington Post-ABC News poll in September found that 75 percent of Democratic leaners said they approved of Biden and 94 percent of Democratic voters said they would support Biden in a 2024 matchup against Trump. At the same time, 56 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents wanted the party to nominate someone other than Biden as its candidate in 2024.

“In 2020, Joe Biden was probably the only person who could beat Donald Trump. In 2024 he might be the only person who can lose to him,” said another Democratic strategist with presidential campaign experience. “Because the American people may just decide he is just not up to the job.”

Biden’s advisers say they believe the president’s record of accomplishment in the White House will quiet those doubts.

“When you tell voters what he’s gotten done in two years, that is actually the single best answer to the age issue because – wow,” one Biden adviser said.