Fresh Off a Series of Victories, Biden Steps Back Onto the Campaign Trail
WASHINGTON — President Biden is preparing for one of the biggest tests of his presidency: Can he save his party?
Fresh off a series of legislative victories, the president kicks off the transition to campaign mode with a speech at a Democratic National Committee rally in Maryland on Thursday as he tries to preserve the party’s control of Congress in the midterm elections.
But his approval rating remains stubbornly low — lower, in some cases, than those of the candidates he hopes to help — and inflation remains stubbornly high. At 79, Mr. Biden is the oldest president in American history, which has become an increasingly uncomfortable issue for Democrats.
Embracing the role as his party’s top campaigner will mean directly confronting Republican attacks when nearly three-quarters of voters say the United States is heading in the wrong direction. It will also mean enduring cold shoulders from some Democratic candidates, a few of whom have made clear that they would prefer if Mr. Biden stayed away.
Representative Tim Ryan, an Ohio Democrat who is running for the Senate, cited scheduling conflicts when Mr. Biden was in his state in July, declining to appear beside the president even as Mr. Ryan — a moderate — is locked in one of the country’s most intense campaign battles in a critical swing state.
Mr. Ryan’s spokeswoman, Izzi Levy, said the president was not someone the congressman wanted to campaign with.
“We haven’t been interested in him or any other out-of-state surrogates,” she said, noting that Mr. Ryan’s approval rating in Ohio was higher than Mr. Biden’s. “I don’t see that changing anytime soon.”
In the West Wing, the president’s advisers are betting that he can help Democratic candidates despite the drags on his popularity. They note that gas prices have dropped for months; the coronavirus has receded, as Mr. Biden promised it would; and he has pushed through big Democratic wins on climate change, drug pricing and taxes on corporations. On Wednesday, he announced billions of dollars in student debt relief, a move that aides hope will energize young voters.
White House strategists also believe no one is better positioned to contrast the Democratic Party’s ideas with those of what the president calls the “ultra-MAGA Republicans,” a phrase meant to draw attention to the control that former President Donald J. Trump still wields and the number of Republicans who adhere to his election-denying conspiracies.
More Coverage of the 2022 Midterm Elections
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- The Evidence Against a Red Wave: Since the fall of Roe v. Wade, it’s increasingly hard to see the once-clear signs of a Republican advantage. A strong Democratic showing in a special election in New York’s Hudson Valley is the latest example.
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- Challenging DeSantis: Florida Democrats chose Representative Charlie Crist, a former Republican, to take on Gov. Ron DeSantis, setting up a contest between a centrist and a hard-right G.O.P. incumbent.
The F.B.I.’s search of Mr. Trump’s home in Florida this month to retrieve classified documents has heightened attention on him at an opportune time for Mr. Biden, raising new questions about the former president’s norm-busting — and possibly illegal — behavior. But it has also made it tougher for the White House’s messages to break through the barrage of Trump-related news coverage.
In a strategy memo released by the White House this month, advisers promised that Mr. Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and members of the cabinet would fan out across the country for events intended to promote the president’s accomplishments.
The memo, from Jen O’Malley Dillon, a deputy White House chief of staff, and Anita Dunn, a top communications adviser, said the president would deliver two complementary messages: a reminder that Democrats “beat the special interests” in passing legislation that nearly all Republicans opposed and an attack on the extreme policies embraced by Mr. Trump and his allies.
“Our polling shows that messages that highlight that the president and congressional Democrats defeated special interests tests well,” Ms. O’Malley Dillon and Ms. Dunn wrote in the memo, which was addressed to Ron Klain, the White House chief of staff. “Our goal for the next few weeks is simple: take our message — one that we know resonates with key groups — and reach the American people where they are.”
That is exactly what some of Mr. Biden’s allies are hoping he will do.
Four months ago, strategists and pundits had all but written off Democratic hopes in the fall, suggesting that the party was doomed. Now, strategists at Way to Win, a progressive consulting and donor group, argue that Democrats can avoid historic political defeat — and even be successful — by aggressively making their case about the accomplishments of Congress and the Biden administration.
In a 34-page presentation for grass-roots organizations and political activists early this month, Way to Win argued that Democrats should acknowledge that “Americans are bombarded and overwhelmed with crises” but emphasized that “Trump Republicans will take us backward by overturning the will of the people, controlling our lives and ruling for the wealthy few.”
Jenifer Fernandez Ancona, a founder of the group and an author of the presentation, said in an interview that Mr. Biden could be an important part of delivering that message — if he pushed beyond the usual campaign tactics that had so far failed to turn his approval ratings around.
“During his whole career, Biden’s always been a workhorse, not a show pony, right?” Ms. Fernandez Ancona said. “I think he needs to use all the tools in the toolbox, and not just like traditional political stumping and press, but like new media, like these emerging platforms — podcasts, TikTok and influencers. You should get out in a different way.”
There is little indication so far that Mr. Biden and his White House are planning nontraditional efforts. On Thursday, during his remarks in Maryland, the president will be flanked by Jaime Harrison, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, and several of the party’s candidates who are running this fall.
The committee’s advisory for the event said the president would rally with candidates to “highlight the choice voters have in the midterms.”
Before the rally, Mr. Biden will headline a private, committee fund-raiser for the Democratic Grassroots Victory Fund, part of a concerted effort by party leaders to raise record amounts of money for their candidates. The president is scheduled to host another committee fund-raiser in New York on Sept. 19.
Several Democratic strategists conceded that Mr. Biden would most likely confront some hesitancy from his party’s candidates in certain states. But that is not unique to the current president. Ben LaBolt, a former campaign aide and administration official under President Barack Obama, said Mr. Biden and his advisers needed to make sure they sent him to places where he could be helpful.
“There’s a strategic deployment of the president that still allows candidates to define their own message in a localized way based on the top priorities for their states or districts,” Mr. LaBolt said.
“You didn’t see President Obama flying into a bunch of red states to campaign for senators in Arkansas and Nebraska and Louisiana,” he added. “You go where you can have an impact on turnout.”
White House officials said they hoped one of the ways Mr. Biden could improve Democratic turnout was by focusing attention on the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, ushering in a wave of abortion bans in conservative states. Abortion rights activists have been frustrated that Mr. Biden has not been more aggressive on the issue, but aides say they recognize its power to motivate Democratic voters.
The real trick, the president’s allies said, will be framing the race in ways that seemed virtually impossible earlier in the year.
“A lot of this is how people see the race,” said David Axelrod, the political adviser and strategist who helped Mr. Obama win the White House in 2008. “Do they see it as a referendum on current conditions? Or do they see it as a choice between a productive governing party and an obstructive opposition? And that’s the struggle. He may feel that he can help tilt that balance.”