WASHINGTON — White House officials are closely monitoring the political activity of at least half a dozen Democrats considered potential alternatives to President Joe Biden in the 2024 election.
The administration appears to be analyzing the words and deeds of rising Democrats across the country, deploying a charm offensive in response to those who seem to be getting a little too ambitious on their own.
The strategy — which some Democrats close to the White House say relies too heavily on soft power and lacks a traditional enforcer — hasn’t been particularly effective. Biden has been unable to stop Democrats from raising their national profile or silencing doubts within the party about his inevitability.
This article is based on interviews with more than two dozen current and former White House officials, lawmakers, Democratic donors and other sources close to the Biden operation.
When Governor JB Pritzker of Illinois and Governor Gavin Newsom of California gained traction by dabbling in national politics, the White House was quick to welcome them at separate events.
In Washington this month, Newsom assured White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain in a private conversation that he was “not interested” in running for president in 2024, according to a report. person close to the conversation.
A few days later, Newsom started running political ads in Texas attacking Governor Greg Abbott on the right to abortion and firearms.
On Capitol Hill, Biden and senior White House officials had to spend time co-opting progressive critics who also sparked talk of 2024 ambitions, including Rep. Ro Khanna, D-California, with private praise.
And inside the West Wing, Biden’s press team has compiled a list of quotes from potential rivals insisting they back the president. (The remarks by Pritzker, Khanna and Newsom all come from the same article in beginning of July.)
“Nobody likes to see someone pull out coffins for you. It’s just like – ‘Not so fast. I’ll make that decision,'” Democratic donor John Morgan said. “It’s like they’re going to the swim meet and Biden is the defending gold medalist. But they all put their bathing suits under their pants. They are ready to get up there and jump as soon as he says “go”. They can’t walk around the arena just in swimsuits because that would really piss Biden off.
The keep enemies close approach is a sign the White House is more worried about potential rivals drawing contrasts with it on policy, which they have, according to Biden allies. Several White House officials have insisted in interviews that the administration is not concerned or concerned about the possibility of a rare intraparty challenge for an incumbent president.
But the tactic also reflects the limits of White House power at a time when Biden’s approval ratings are in the tank and up to three-quarters of Democrats tell pollsters they would prefer a different candidate in 2024.
And with the president rapidly recovering from Covid and reaching a deal with Sen. Joe Manchin, DW.Va., to further implement the White House agenda, the White House is re-examining plans what it says be a robust travel schedule this fall on behalf of Democratic candidates up and down the ballot.
That contradicts an acknowledgment, according to sources close to the White House political operation, that the president is at a weak political moment — including Biden himself. When a reporter recently asked the president what his message was to Democrats who didn’t want him to run for a second term, the president retorted, “Read the polls, Jack. You are all the same. This poll showed that 92% of Democrats, if I ran, would vote for me. »
But in the poll quoted by Biden, conducted by The New York Times and Siena College, 64% of Democrats said they would rather the party nominate someone other than him. This figure was 75% in a CNN poll released Wednesday.
Such polls provide a clear incentive for other Democrats to start revving up their campaign machines. But White House allies say there is no opening.
“It’s borderline stupid,” said Democratic strategist Philippe Reines, a longtime adviser to Hillary Clinton. “If for some reason Biden is not at the top of the list, good luck to anyone who denies Kamala the nomination. Especially a white man,” he said, referring to Vice President Kamala Harris.
Still, some Biden allies worry he’s not equipped by temperament to crush potential threats himself, and say he hasn’t equipped his political operation with an invaluable tool: a hatchet man.
In 2012, then-President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign was aimed at anticipating a possible challenge from Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Jim Messina, Obama’s campaign manager, said in an interview. He used then-Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid as an intermediary to “shut down Bernie” and talk him out of running.
“There is no hammer,” in Biden’s camp, lamented a former Biden White House official.
“There is no one in the administration that no one is afraid of,” a longtime Biden ally added. “They don’t have an enforcer inside the White House that anyone takes seriously.”
Without that leverage, the White House has struggled to shut down stories that Biden, at 79, is too old or politically weak to run for re-election. And that puts him in danger of being seen as a lame duck in just his second year in office.
Biden himself has used more honey than vinegar to approach potential 2024 hopefuls.
Following the July 4 mass shooting in Highland Park, Illinois, the President invited Pritzker to the Oval Office where they discussed the need for broader gun reform and he again provided the city with all necessary federal resources, according to the mayor of Highland Park. Nancy Rotering, who was also present at the meeting.
But Biden then took a moment to praise the governor, who a week earlier had suggested that the president could face a primary and that there is historical precedent for it, although he added that he did not encourage a challenge.
“You have a great governor in Illinois,” Biden said, according to a person briefed on the meeting. “It passes what we need to pass in DC and across the country.”
Biden then took photos with the group and they sat on the patio before heading to the event together.
Pritzker’s top aides had also called the White House external affairs team before the governor traveled to New Hampshire in June, realizing the optics of the visit. Along with the warning, aides shared a video clip of the governor publicly stating he was not interested in running against Biden, according to a person with direct knowledge of the communications. They did the same before Pritzker’s subsequent speech to Democrats in Florida, during which he launched attacks on Governor Ron DeSantis.
These trips have only generated more headlines and speculation about 2024.
While sources close to Newsom say he could easily change his mind about running in 2024, he has nonetheless made a point of trying to scuttle speculation about presidential ambitions in conversations with party insiders. .
“He said he wasn’t showing up,” said Christine Pelosi, a Democratic National Committee member from California and daughter of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who texted Newsom earlier this month to ask him what his plans were.
“He’s just frustrated with the way Republicans have been able to take over this debate. [on certain issues] and how Democrats need to fight harder to take it back and show our successes,” she added. “That’s what he said.”
Biden has recently drawn sharper contrasts with former President Donald Trump, who may announce a 2024 candidacy before November’s midterm elections, to signal to Democrats who question his political viability that he is the one who can beat Trump.
In virtual remarks to law enforcement officers on Monday – the day before Trump returns to Washington to deliver a ‘law and order’ speech – Biden slammed the former president for the Jan. 6 attack on the US Capitol. .
“You can’t be pro-insurgency and pro-cop,” Biden said. The event was where he was to speak in person, part of a planned two-city swing in key battleground Florida that was also to include his first midterms campaign rally. The Democratic National Committee said the trip would be postponed.
Trump is the backbone of Biden’s argument to fellow Democrats that he is their best bet to hold the White House.
“I maintain that you cannot enter [the] Contrast Trump too soon. It’s the best backdrop for us,” a White House official said. “Gavin Newsom has a more compelling argument why he would beat Trump?”
In a Yahoo! News/YouGov Survey earlier this month, Biden held a 42% to 40% lead over Trump. Newsom edged Trump 40% to 39%, while Harris tied with Trump at 41%.
Terry McAuliffe, former governor of Virginia and former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, dismissed any notion of a primary challenge.
“The president has declared that he is a candidate for re-election. His staff are preparing for him to run for re-election and we all need to rally behind Joe Biden. With Democrats, there’s this constant state of negativity,” said McAuliffe, who is being considered for a cabinet or other leadership position in the Biden administration.
He also noted that elected officials have a lot to gain from taking on a sitting president.
“Every Democratic governor wants to keep the White House and the president on the right side. They want one of these new [computer] chip factories in their state. They want to make sure they get infrastructure money and they won’t do anything that would jeopardize their relationship with the White House.