Sunday, May 26

Democrats Fret That Biden’s Power Players Are Not at His Campaign Base

With less than 10 months to go until the 2024 election, the nerve center of President Biden’s bid for a second term is stationed not at his campaign’s headquarters in Delaware but within feet of the Oval Office.

The president and his chief strategist, Mike Donilon, have repeatedly discussed when to move him over to the campaign — perhaps after the 2022 midterm elections, then after the 2023 off-year elections and again at the end of 2023. Each time, no move happened after the president told aides he wanted to keep Mr. Donilon within walking distance.

Anita Dunn, the longtime Democratic operative who stepped in to help revive Mr. Biden’s fledging operation four years ago, is crafting the re-election message again, even as she oversees communications at the White House. Jen O’Malley Dillon, Mr. Biden’s deputy White House chief of staff and former campaign manager, is also splitting her day job with her role as one of the most powerful voices in the campaign.

So far, almost none of the people in the president’s inner circle have left for campaign headquarters in Wilmington, Del., prompting some donors and strategists to worry that too much of Mr. Biden’s team remains cloistered inside the White House. Less than a year before Election Day, the president has a campaign with two distinct centers of gravity, advisers juggling two jobs at once, and months of internal debate about when to consolidate everyone in one place.

A spokesman for the campaign dismissed concerns about the campaign structure, noting that past presidents had sometimes left top political advisers in the White House.

“We invite everyone concerned about the existential threat that Donald Trump and MAGA Republicans pose to our freedom and democracy to channel their energy toward organizing, donating and talking to their friends about the stakes of this election,” said Kevin Munoz, the spokesman.

But the situation has led anxious Democrats, including some inside the campaign itself, to privately and publicly prod Mr. Biden to step on the gas. That includes former President Barack Obama, who discussed the urgency of the 2024 election and the structure of the president’s campaign with Mr. Biden in November, according to several people familiar with the discussion. The Washington Post first reported the conversation.

In interviews with more than a dozen Democratic operatives, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss campaign strategy, several said they worried that a bifurcated campaign was contributing to a slow start to what should be a furious battle for a second term. John Morgan, one of Mr. Biden’s top donors, said the hand-wringing was coming from Democrats who are terrified because of polls showing razor-thin margins for Mr. Biden in battleground states, as well as the potency of former President Donald J. Trump’s candidacy.

“That’s why you hear so much, you know, back-seat driving,” Mr. Morgan said. “Because we all think we have the answer. And, you know, the campaign gets sick of hearing from donors and political operatives and so-called experts.”

At the same time, he said, Mr. Biden’s recent speech directly attacking Mr. Trump a day before the anniversary of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol was evidence to him that the campaign had begun responding to the anxiety expressed by his supporters

“That was red meat. That’s what the donor class wants and thinks is needed,” Mr. Morgan said.

The intraparty anxiety has been building for months. Last spring, Mr. Biden named Julie Chávez Rodríguez as his campaign manager, and dispatched her to his hometown of Wilmington to set up the re-election effort. Since then, the staff at the headquarters has grown slowly, with about 80 full-time staff members now working there, according to campaign officials.

But most of the president’s top White House advisers have not budged, even as the political calendar has marched on. People familiar with the dynamic inside the White House said that Mr. Biden liked having them close to him, and that the advisers were nervous about how leaving might affect their influence with the president and among other colleagues in the building.

Andrew Bates, a White House spokesman, called it a “widespread hobby in Washington” to talk about a president’s staff, adding, “During every re-election campaign, there have been senior advisers in the White House who work on related political issues, within the rules.”

Polls show that the president has struggled to revive his approval ratings in the last year, even among important Democratic constituencies like young people and minority voters, despite an improving economy and slowing inflation. In a Gallup survey, Mr. Biden ended the year with a 39 percent approval rate — what the organization called “the worst of any modern-day president heading into a tough re-election campaign.”

Other surveys, including a New York Times-Siena College poll taken late last year, show Mr. Biden narrowly defeating Mr. Trump.

Matt Bennett, a co-founder of Third Way, a progressive think tank in Washington, called the concerns about the campaign’s structure “just a perennial political story,” but said the nervousness about the president’s standing with the public was real and should be taken seriously at the start of the election year.

“Everybody’s nervous,” he said, “and the downside risk isn’t that Mitt Romney becomes president. It’s that the republic collapses, and so people are really scared.”

Mr. Biden’s campaign officials said decisions about staffing and the timing of hiring at the headquarters and in battleground states were driven by a plan to conserve resources until Americans are paying attention.

“The president’s campaign is doing the important, early work to build our coalition and will continue scaling up as voters begin to think more about this November’s election,” said Mr. Munoz , the campaign spokesman.

With the Republican primary contest set to begin in Iowa on Monday, the Biden campaign is beginning to ramp up its higher-level staffing. On Thursday, Ms. Chávez Rodríguez announced the hiring of three veteran Democratic strategists to lead Mr. Biden’s re-election efforts in battleground states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, Arizona and Georgia.

And last week, Mitch Landrieu, a former mayor of New Orleans and a former lieutenant governor of Louisiana, stepped down from his White House job overseeing the president’s infrastructure spending and will move into a senior position at the campaign.

Sarah Longwell, an anti-Trump Republican strategist who is working to get swing voters to vote for Democrats this year, said the Biden campaign needed to do a better job fielding an army of surrogates who can make the case to Democratic voters that Mr. Biden deserves another four years.

“You’ve got all of these young women. You’ve got these incredibly impressive swing-state governors. Get your people out there,” she said, noting that Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, “goes on Fox News every night to talk about why Donald Trump’s the freakin’ best, and so does everybody else.”

“Getting on campaign footing sooner rather than later,” she said, “is what the moment requires.”

That shift is already in motion, campaign officials said. Mr. Biden has stepped up his campaign appearances this year. And new television ads are scheduled for January in battleground states, part of a $25 million campaign that began last year.

James Carville, the blunt-talking Democratic strategist who ran Bill Clinton’s first campaign for president, said Democrats should spend less time mouthing off and more time supporting the campaign’s efforts to keep Mr. Biden in the White House.

“The DNC, the state party chairs, the labor people, the progressive advocacy groups, they all want a seat at the table,” he said. “You can have a seat as long as you keep your mouth shut. I’m old and I can say it because I’ve been around, but that’s the truth.”

Reid J. Epstein contributed reporting from Des Moines, Iowa.