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‘We all have concerns’: Hill Democrats see flawed Biden campaign

President Joe Biden steps off Air Force One at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland after returning from Philadelphia, where he participated in a service event as the country marked Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Monday.  (Mandel Ngan/AFP/TNS)
By John T. Bennett CQ-Roll Call

Congressional Democrats have concerns about President Joe Biden’s reelection campaign, with some calling for a new approach – or risk Donald Trump returning to the White House.

Some veteran Democrats see a campaign that needs stronger leadership, more diversity and a stronger message. While they credit Biden for building what they called a successful first term, Democratic members said they are concerned about the campaign’s ability to win over skeptical independents and frustrated Democratic voters.

Some senior members of Biden’s party have raised concerns about the campaign’s construction, strategy and messaging. They said the president and his campaign team need to spend more time explaining how his administration is fighting still-nagging inflation and talking about conservative Supreme Court justices’ 2022 decision to roll back Roe v. Wade and its federal abortion rights protections.

The bottom line is the Biden campaign needs to connect with voters and convince them that the president – not the legally entangled Trump – is more focused on improving their finances and lives, Democratic members said last week, before Trump steamrolled to victory in Iowa’s first-of-the-cycle GOP presidential nominating contest.

“Well, I think those of us who helped Joe Biden get elected president are not real comfortable at this point with what we’re seeing,” Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., said last week. “It just appears that the people who were engaged in helping craft the message and direction of the 2020 campaign are not actively involved in this campaign.

“Now, that doesn’t mean – it’s not too late to broaden the participation. But I think part of that discomfort is, in order to win, you have to have your best team effort,” Thompson added. “That team effort includes who he has, but he also needs men and women of color in the room, Latino, Asian. I think it’s that the tent is too small right now.”

The concerns also include the campaign’s messaging, which so far has largely been focused on a bipartisan infrastructure law that Biden and his team have tried to convince voters would not have happened without his involvement. More recently, the president has begun to speak more forcefully about what he contends is Trump’s threat to American democracy, his efforts to overturn the 2020 elections, as well as the former president’s actions before, during and after the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot.

Congressional Democrats said they see the democracy message as a strong one for Biden, calling on him to keep beating that drum on the campaign trail.

“I think the president’s … last couple of speeches that he’s put forward have been good ones,” said Senate Intelligence Chairman Mark Warner, D-Va. “You know, I think we’re all connected on the theme about protecting democracy is an important one.”

[Biden invokes George Washington, calls Trump a threat to democracy]

Several House and Senate Democrats said they were concerned that the president and his campaign surrogates have not been more vocal and forceful in trying to convince voters that his legislative victories and other actions have bolstered the economy and made their lives better.

“We all have concerns. We want to make sure it’s a victorious campaign,” former House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said last week.

“I think Joe Biden has had as successful an administration as any president, perhaps since Franklin Roosevelt. And our job is to make sure the American people know how it affected them and their families so positively,” he said. Asked whether Democrats and the Biden campaign have made the case well enough, Hoyer replied: “We need to make it more.”

‘How can we do this better?’

Frustrations among many Democrats about Team Biden’s inability to sell what most in the party call a successful term were palpable.

“The Biden administration has a rich portfolio that they’ve accomplished. I think there’s some continued concern about how that portfolio is being delivered, and who’s delivering it,” Thompson said. “And so I think it’s just a matter of, you know, getting some more people under the tent. And, so, how can we do this better?”

Signs of bolstering the campaign came in recent days, with White House climate czar John Kerry and infrastructure chief Mitch Landrieu departing their government posts for what are expected to be roles in the campaign. But, to Thompson’s point about diversity, both are white men.

Quentin Fulks, principal deputy campaign manager for Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, said Sunday that he understands why many Democrats have concerns.

“Well, first of all, what I would say to these critics is that I understand what they’re feeling. They’re feeling urgency. They feel afraid. Democracy is at stake,” he told MSNBC. “We’re not just saying that and then dragging our feet. We’re building a campaign that’s going to be the campaign that we need to be effective to win in November.

Democratic members interviewed last week and others who have spoken in other settings pointed to polling that showed Biden in a dead heat nationally with Trump.

Members also expressed concerns that Biden had, according to a RealClearPolitics average of multiple polls, fallen behind Trump in key swing states. That list included Arizona, Georgia, Michigan and Nevada – with Trump’s lead in Michigan growing to 6 percentage points, according to RealClear’s average.

Biden’s approval rating dipped to a record low of 33% in an ABC News-Ipsos poll released Sunday. By contrast, Trump’s lowest approval rating during his term was 36%.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., the final challenger to Biden left standing in the Democrats’ 2020 nominating contest, said Sunday the president needs a new reelection approach, and that his handling of the Israel-Hamas war had severely damaged support among younger voters.

“There is no question, it is very hard for young people, I think for most Americans, to be excited about what is going on right now. President (Biden) has got to change course,” Sanders told CNN.

The popular progressive senator did not specify what he would have Biden change other than finding a way to convince Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to tone down his military offensive. But Sanders did offer this prediction: “So I think people will end up rallying around Biden.”

To be sure, that is a major gamble – especially given Trump’s wide support among GOP voters in what experts and lawmakers have said should again be an election where the result depends on whose voters turn out in November. Seventy-two percent of GOP voters in the same ABC-Ipsos survey said they would be satisfied with Trump as their party’s nominee for a third consecutive cycle.

The long game

Fulks and other senior Biden campaign officials on a call with reporters earlier this month described a long-game strategy largely based on an assessment that most voters have not yet started thinking about the general election as a race between Biden and Trump.

Asked about Biden’s dismal poll numbers, Fulks said on the Jan. 3 call that the campaign intends to “scale up” its efforts and staffing – including paid media buys – so that the operation is “fully operational” when voters are more seriously thinking about the election. And when they do, Fulks and other officials said, the president and his surrogates will be making the case that voters have a clear “choice” between Biden and Trump.

But one possible general election wildcard, Sen. Joe Manchin III – the West Virginia Democrat retiring from the Senate who on Sunday again would not rule out a third-party White House bid – said last week the Biden campaign should not focus too much on the former president.

“The public is very upset about many things, whether it be the (southern) border – I think the situation is … nothing less than a crisis at the border,” Manchin said. “But all the challenges we have right now, and inflation is still hitting people the hardest in … food, housing and transportation. Those things have to be cured. (Biden) has to address those in his message.”

Asked how the campaign can break through what Rep. James E. Clyburn, D-S.C., recently called the “MAGA wall” of constant Trump coverage and attention-seeking, Manchin replied: “They shouldn’t be worried about President Trump.

“They should be worried about President Biden, what he’s accomplished and what he has to accomplish, what he’s failed at and what he can fix and repair,” he said. “That’s all: be honest.”

Biden campaign officials, however, are so far not heeding Manchin’s advice, nor that of other Democrats. Fulks’ message on Sunday was one of staying the course.

“We’re going to continue to be very clear about what our message is, and that’s the fact that MAGA Republicans, led by Donald Trump, pose an existential threat to freedom of democracy,” Fulks said. “Look, we’re not going to let go of the fact that Americans are paying too much for prescription drugs. President Biden’s not going to let go of the fact that we need to continue to do everything we can to reduce student loan debt.

“He’s not going to let go of the fact that Trump is out there saying that he wishes the economy would fail,” Fulks added. “He’s not going to let go of the fact that we need to continue to drive unemployment down, that we need to continue to make sure that inflation is decreasing.”