President Joe Biden has been letting loose in private conversations in recent weeks, railing about the factors bogging down his approval ratings and the people he thinks aren’t helping – including Democrats eyeing his job despite his clear promise to run for reelection.
He’s gearing up for intense midterm campaigning built around hammering Republicans, as he tries to save Democrats in the House and Senate, but also to tee up a reelection campaign that for now is expected to be announced by next spring.
Biden is frustrated that journalists aren’t calling out Republicans for, as he sees it, giving up their principles in pursuit of power, according to a dozen people familiar with the President and his inner circle. He’s eager to unleash on the GOP ahead of the midterm elections but worries that doing so could endanger his last remaining hopes for bipartisan legislative wins. He knows he’ll be blamed for the economic pain that people are feeling – but deliberately, the statement he put out on Thursday about the latest contraction in the US economy spent as much time attributing the situation to “technical factors” as hammering congressional Republicans for their proposal to raise taxes on the middle class.
With his approval rating as bad as the low 30s in some polls and nearly every Democratic strategist warning that the political environment is dire – and many in the party still complaining that the White House’s political operation lacks enough planning or urgency – the President is short on other options. But advisers and others who’ve spoken directly with the President tell CNN the polarized country gives him a chance to make a more effective contrast than in any prior midterm cycle, boosted by the material they’re counting on from expected primary wins by Trump loyalists and other far-right candidates in May and June – as well as the anticipated Republican opposition to Biden’s last attempt at a domestic policy push in the congressional reconciliation process underway.
In private conversations, the President has lamented how much people have stopped focusing on how bad a state he believes the country was in under former President Donald Trump. And so his old line, “Don’t compare me to the Almighty, compare me to the alternative,” has become a midterm mantra around the West Wing.
“Voters can easily believe that the country isn’t where they hoped,” one Biden adviser argued, “but also believe that they don’t want to turn it over to Marjorie Taylor Greene in ’22 and Trump in ‘24.”
“Part of the value of contrast in any midterms is to try to force voters to think about this as a choice, as opposed to making it a referendum,” said another Biden adviser. “That’s most effectively done from the top – it’s hard to send candidates around the country even if they’re all singing from the same hymnbook if you don’t have the President driving it.”
The current political climate has Biden’s inner circle looking abroad for hope, with French President Emmanuel Macron’s wide reelection win against a far-right repeat opponent last weekend validating the thinking around Biden that he can mitigate the damage this year by going hard on Republicans. Experts more familiar with French politics weren’t as swayed by a tweet from White House chief of staff Ron Klain after the Macron results came that noted the French President had an approval rating similar to Biden’s and won a big victory. It’s true that the binary choice was to Macron’s benefit, they say, but his approval rating is actually high by French standards, whereas Biden’s is low by American standards.
The work isn’t just on Biden and his team, as the White House sees it. People close to the President say he’s amused, and a little annoyed, by the impatient ambitions of those in his own party whom he senses ushering him toward the exit. They want Democrats to focus on the party’s stakes in the midterms and not on their own future ambitions.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts inspired the latest eye-rolls in the West Wing. White House aides were annoyed last week to click on her New York Times op-ed lamenting “a stalled Biden agenda” and “our failure to get big things done.” Several of them thought she could have used her platform to tout Biden’s successes. Instead, they watched as she got booked onto Sunday news shows to talk about her own wish-list agenda – and to be asked if she’d be running for president again in 2024.
She answered by repeating that Biden is running and she’s supporting him, but the White House would rather the conversation focus on Trumpism consuming the Republican Party. Some of that sentiment is likely to come out disguised as jokes at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner on Saturday night. Biden has already sprinkled a little new into his weathered “Don’t compare me to the Almighty, compare me to the alternative” and “This is not your father’s Republican Party” lines.
“This is the MAGA party,” he said at a pair of West Coast fundraisers last week.
On Thursday, responding to the bad gross domestic product numbers that reflect more trouble for the economy on his watch, Biden said the blame was obviously on obstructionist Republicans, and again cited the hard-right agenda of Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, leader of Senate Republicans’ campaign arm.
“We’re in a situation where we have a very different view than Sen. Scott and Republicans who want to raise taxes on middle-class families and want to include half of small business owners,” Biden said. “If our Republican friends are really interested in doing something about economic growth, they should help us continue to lower the deficit; they should be willing to work with us to have a tax code that is actually one that works and everybody pays their fair share; and they should be in a position where we shouldn’t be raising taxes on middle-class folks, we should be raising taxes on people who everyone acknowledges aren’t paying their fair share.”
Bracing for a Biden-Trump game of chicken
Like everyone else in politics, Biden and his inner circle of advisers are gauging the rumblings out of Mar-a-Lago, looking for signs of the former President’s plans to run in 2024.
But the timeline is under Trump’s control – the former President could wait a year or more to declare, looming over Republican machinations that are expected to accelerate the morning after the midterms.
Meanwhile, officials are being very careful about not violating the Hatch Act by mixing politics with government business. Biden’s advisers outside the White House are wary of triggering any campaign finance requirements and restrictions that could come even from too much talk about running.
“You can point to history that there’s a pretty clear time horizon that many presidents have looked to in their reelection campaigns,” another adviser to the President said, asked whether Biden is similarly headed to a reelection announcement of the sort that former President Barack Obama did. If so, that would be around this time next year.
Biden advisers say they think his poll numbers are statistically better than they should be, given the sourness of the country’s mood. Trump’s are worse, and top Democrats present that as a sign of how much goodwill there is toward Biden.
“Joe Biden beat him once,” said John Anzalone, Biden’s pollster for the campaign, “and Joe Biden will beat him again.”
But the Democratic worries about 2024 are compounding. Many party leaders who agree Biden is their strongest bet against Trump are skeptical that he’d do well against a younger and less reviled Republican. Prominent party leaders say privately that they’re on edge that a 2024 race without Biden would prompt another crowded primary.
At the same time, if Biden held off on a decision to avoid governing as a lame duck, that could hobble other candidates who need time to raise money and their profiles.
“Even if Republicans win this year, I still believe Biden is our best candidate against Trump and would beat him,” said Rep. Brendan Boyle of Pennsylvania, an avid supporter going back to even before he attended Biden’s first campaign fundraiser on the night he launched in 2019.
In other words, American politics over the next few years might come down to two White men in their late 70s playing an extended game of chicken.
Just as Trump is using his midterm endorsements and rallies to cut what could be a path of his own for 2024, Biden sees the next six months as his own opportunity to capitalize on his brand.
“He’s like Scranton in his mind,” said one person who has spoken to the President, referring to the Pennsylvania town where Biden was born and that he often references. “There was a boom, then a bust, but the value hasn’t changed. Only the fleeting market interest has.”
The adviser to the President put it in clearer political terms: “It’s not just that there’s intra-party back-and-forth on the Republican side. It’s that Trump is drawing them to the past, and the American people need their leaders to draw them forward.”
In the meantime, Biden is still trying to govern. The Supreme Court confirmation of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson didn’t give the White House the polling bump aides had hoped for, which they attribute to the lack of a fight on the scale of the Brett Kavanaugh nomination. But even as the President looks to step up the attacks on congressional Republicans, he doesn’t want to harm the possibility of future deals with them.
They could end up in power, after all.
“Making ad hominem attacks is not who he is,” said a Biden aide, “and it’s not, frankly, what he believes the American people are looking for in their leaders and their president.”
An old friend drops by the White House for lunch
Biden keeps telling his team that if he can just get out of the White House more he’ll be able to convince more people – Americans and lawmakers – to support his agenda. Covid-19 and then Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have both been used as explanations for why he hasn’t followed through.
Among some aides, the persistent vows to get around have become something of a punchline.
The toe-touch trips Biden has taken have frequently left his agenda upstaged: When he was promoting ethanol inside a corn-processing facility in Iowa, his comment that Putin was committing genocide was what generated the most attention.
On Monday, Biden had his old buddy Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan over to the White House. While he was there, Duggan joined Biden in the Oval Office as the President called Macron to congratulate him on reelection. He sat in on a session with Harvard students talking about how to draw in disaffected young voters. They had lunch in the presidential dining room, and Duggan showed Biden photographs of how some of the American Rescue Plan money is being used in Detroit.
“Because he’s not out there, he’s really not getting the credit he deserves for all the good things that are happening,” Duggan said he had told Biden. “Standing there with a teleprompter and reading is not what he loves.”
Assessing Democrats’ chances in Michigan, a prime presidential battleground, Duggan said he thinks local Republicans are hurting themselves by continuing to chase conspiracy theories over the 2020 election results. The anxiety over inflation is real among everyone from factory workers to middle-class suburbanites to people in his city, Duggan said, but he’s holding out hope that inflation pressures will fade in the months ahead.
Duggan was the very first person to pitch Biden on running in 2020 – in a conversation on election night 2016 when the then-vice president called for a gut check about Trump winning Michigan.
The mayor said he’s just as on board now.
“Anybody who hung around him today would be encouraging him to run again – he was strong, focused and ready for the fight,” Duggan said. “I agree with him that the Democrats would be lucky to have Trump again. But if they do, it’s all the more reason to have Joe Biden.”