vision 2024

The Alarming Calm of the Biden Campaign

Inside reelection HQ, the president’s aides feel confident that the 2024 race is totally under control.

Photo: Brian Finke
Photo: Brian Finke
Photo: Brian Finke

One Friday morning in November, a handful of Joe Biden’s top aides gathered in a Sheraton conference room in Chicago. Alumni of Barack Obama’s first presidential bid had descended on the city to celebrate the 15th anniversary of his 2008 victory, and now, after a night of partying, more than 100 of them had rolled out of bed to hear the Biden campaign’s leaders detail the effort to get the president a second term.

The audience had reason to be skeptical about 2024, even panicky. The president is old, hobbled by the aftereffects of a big spike in inflation, buffeted by two wars, and starting to trail in polls against an opponent whose grip on the Republican Party seems stronger than ever. An off-cycle Election Day was looming after the weekend. At the Sheraton, the Biden team unveiled a version of the presentation it had been giving to nervous Democrats around the country. Campaign manager Julie Chávez Rodríguez described how Biden’s accomplishments, like drug-pricing reform, poll well — at least once voters are reminded of the details. Becca Siegel, a senior adviser, spoke about how Biden has a few promising paths to 270 votes in the Electoral College.

The Obama veterans (many of whom also worked for the 2012 campaign and know a bit about reelecting unpopular incumbents) were looking for reassurance. Some were sated, but others were itching for more substance. They pressed the Biden aides for details. How might third-party candidates affect youth turnout? What’s your precise understanding of how to reach voters with inscrutable media-consumption habits? Toward the end of the session, Siegel told the room that the election was going to be close no matter what they did. The Sheraton fell silent as she reminded the group that in November 2020, only 45,000 votes in a few states had kept Donald Trump from a second term.

It was, in the words of one Democrat present, an “Oh God moment.” These operatives hadn’t expected to learn about some silver-bullet master plan to vanquish Trump once and for all. Still, more than one told me they couldn’t shake the feeling that for a sophisticated crowd, what they were hearing — the high-level outline of the Biden plan — felt obvious. Another thought the Bidenites were starting to come across as “absurdly defensive.” One somewhat sideways best-case interpretation came from a former senior Obama strategist: Maybe the Biden aides didn’t feel it was the proper venue for a deeper dive precisely because they were facing so many the-sky-is-falling questions — a rationale of “I don’t need to be with all these fucking smart-asses telling me I’m doing everything wrong.” Whatever the reason, even Obama alums who thought the briefing went well felt they still had little grasp on the exact plan to address Biden’s two biggest problems: his age — he’s 81 — and higher prices.

Then, a few days later, Democrats continued their eye-popping run of electoral overperformance. They won in Kentucky, Ohio, New Jersey, Virginia, and Pennsylvania, fueled by voter fury with a radicalizing GOP and the Supreme Court decision that nullified the constitutional right to abortion. If Biden was dragging his party down, there was no evidence for it at the ballot box.

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The Calmest Democrats in the Country

With less than a year until the 2024 vote, there is a glaring cognitive split at the top of the Democratic Party. While commentators and many strategists are aghast at Biden’s polling slide and desperate to see a course correction, the president’s aides at the White House and at reelection headquarters give every indication that they consider the election very much under control. The morning after the November 7 vote, Michael Tyler, the campaign’s communications director, circulated a toldja-so memo scoffing at the “pundit class” practice of “breathlessly making prediction after prediction about November 2024 based on polling” and pointing out that Biden “now presides over the best midterm & off-year combo for a president’s party in 20 years.” Another Biden insider described the run of off-year election victories to me as “canaries in the coal mine, dying,” and predicted that the president would win next November because “Dobbs is going to be on every ballot in every jurisdiction in America.” Democrats have been doing better than expected in all sorts of elections since Roe was overruled, and abortion-rights activists are pushing ballot initiatives in at least ten states.

To many outside this bubble of confidence, Biden’s position looks as feeble as ever. His job-approval rating is hovering below 40 percent, lower than any president in recent memory at this point in his first term. Many young voters appear to be revolting against him, reading his administration’s support for Israel as a lack of concern for the mounting civilian death toll in Gaza. There are a slew of encouraging reports about the economy, but voters don’t seem to be giving Biden any credit — instead they’re just pissed off that everything costs a lot more than it used to. The latest Reuters poll has Trump leading Biden by double digits on who better handles the economy. Several chaos agents have emerged who could find their way onto ballots and siphon off support, including Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Cornel West, Jill Stein, and perhaps a centrist or two yet to enter the contest. Biden’s latest primary challenger, the obscure and largely self-funded congressman Dean Phillips, has essentially no shot of winning but is promising to relentlessly target Biden for his age and ability to serve competently.

Earlier this month, the president himself inadvertently restarted the debate over his place in the race by telling donors at a fundraiser near Boston that “if Trump wasn’t running, I’m not sure I’d be running.” Attempting to clean up his remarks, he undermined one of his original rationales for his candidacy, telling reporters he was just one of “probably 50” Democrats who could beat Trump.

The result of all this is that anyone who is watching closely and wants Biden to win, or simply doesn’t want to see Trump win, feels at least a little scared about 2024. Biden’s campaign is, for now, following a well-organized and well-funded but straightforward playbook against an opponent who is anything but normal — erratic, despised, and under indictment for dozens of alleged crimes. But one way to understand how Biden’s lieutenants can feel calm about his lack of enthusiastic support is that they can still win if Biden simply remains less objectionable than Trump to some plurality of the electorate that gets him to 270 votes. It’s worked before. “God, Biden doesn’t energize me,” one super-wealthy donor said to me recently, sighing. But he was still supporting the president because “then there’s the other side, which is the fascist.”

If the campaign has an unofficial motto, it might be “Calm the fuck down, trust the process, and vote for Joe Biden. One. More. Time.” His top advisers believe that the political-media complex is repeating all its mistakes of 2019 in underestimating Biden and misunderstanding just how low Trump has sunk in voters’ estimation. They’re convinced Biden will rebound in popularity as the election gets closer and its stakes become apparent to the average voter. They also fully expect that no matter what happens between now and Election Day, the race will be decided by the narrowest of margins, just like almost every recent contest.

Those expectations came through clearly during the Biden staffers’ presentation at the Sheraton in Chicago. The former senior Obama strategist said, “My most negative perception is they suspect, at the end, that ‘these people are going to be with us. These people are going to get onboard. We just have to get to that point, and part of it is Trump emerging.’” This assumption could very well come true, he said. He just wasn’t ready to bet on it. A simple lack of enthusiasm among rank-and-file Democrats could spell doom. Given all that rides on it, the president’s reelection effort is built on a confidence that, even to the party’s elite, can come off as terrifying.

One week after Democrats’ near sweep of the November 7 elections, I checked in with Biden’s campaign advisers in Wilmington, Delaware. “It seems like the only thing people want to pay attention to is the polls and not the work,” said Quentin Fulks, Chávez Rodríguez’s principal deputy. “That’s why we keep turning people toward ‘Look how people are turning out to vote.’” Young-voter turnout had surged in Pennsylvania, and large majorities of Latino and Black voters in Ohio had voted to protect abortion rights. Tyler added that the outcomes were “confirmation that we have the right strategy in place. We’re confident that if we keep our heads down, ignore the chatter, ignore the noise, and put our plan in place, we’ll be successful on Election Day.”

That plan rests on certain assumptions — a set of fundamental beliefs about Biden, the media, and the coming year. The central article of faith is that Biden’s support will consolidate once Trump wins the GOP primary and voters lock into the rematch. One Biden aide pointed me to a recent poll conducted by a Democratic group showing that despite Trump’s huge primary lead, only a fifth of Americans are convinced that he will be nominated. A second, related tenet is that while the political class has long since dialed into 2024’s apocalyptic stakes, most American minds are simply elsewhere. “The average swing voter thinks about politics four minutes a week,” Jim Messina, Obama’s 2012 campaign manager, told me in September, “and they’re not waking up for another 12 months.” In that time, plenty will change. A common refrain is that at this point in 2019, Trump had not been impeached and no one had ever heard of a disease called COVID.

Third, the Biden strategy assumes that his poll numbers will get a cyclical improvement. Just about every other president who has been reelected hit a trough of some sort around this point in their first terms, including Obama and Bill Clinton. A final fundamental is that the public has only begun to glimpse Biden’s reelection effort, and therefore none of its potential has been realized. “It doesn’t matter that people don’t think their lives are better or know what Biden has done now,” said an outside Democratic strategist, someone who thinks the Biden-is-cooked narrative is vastly overstated. “They have a year and a billion dollars in ads to make the case. That’s what a campaign is.

Early this fall, Messina, who talks regularly with members of Biden’s inner circle, distributed a 22-slide deck that he hoped would send a message to concerned Democrats — or, as he termed them to Politico, the “fucking bed-wetters.” He acknowledged that the race would be close but looked to ratchet nerves down by arguing that Biden has at least four credible avenues to victory in the Electoral College.

One is simply to replicate the 2020 map for 303 electoral votes. This was not easy to do the first time around and may be harder to pull off again; Biden flipped Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan and became the first Democrat to win Arizona and Georgia in decades. A second path is narrower: Biden could win exactly the necessary 270 by carrying those midwestern “blue wall” states — even if he concedes Arizona, Georgia, North Carolina, and Nevada. A third route is the reverse of the second one, a “Sunbelt strategy” that would net 275. The fourth option calls for replicating 2022’s Senate-race results, dropping Wisconsin and North Carolina but winning the other battlegrounds for 293.

The hard part is that no two of these states require the same winning formula, not even the ones that tend to swing together or that look demographically similar from afar. Recent polling suggests, for example, that Biden is running much stronger with Latino voters in Arizona than in Nevada. In 2020, he flipped Georgia largely on the strength of Black voters near Atlanta, white suburbanites who’d soured on Trump, and the young. This election cycle, Biden is losing youth support in Georgia, and his team is keeping watch on both West — who is heavily targeting disillusioned voters, including Black ones — and a third-party effort fueled by the No Labels group. North Carolina is another state with a large population of highly educated former Republicans that No Labels could help put in Trump’s column. Michigan, meanwhile, is the locus of Democratic concern about backlash to the war in Gaza, given the large Arab American population around Detroit.

The final margin in any of these states may easily be in the mere thousands, and Biden’s aides haven’t yet decided how to prioritize different sets of voters over the long run. In Wisconsin, for example, they must balance between turning out the base in Dane County, a booming and reliably left-leaning area, and persuading swing voters in the “WOW” counties of Waukesha, Ozaukee, and Washington. “A year out from Election Day in 2020, did most people think we could win Georgia? I don’t think so,” said Siegel, who ran Biden’s analytics effort last time. “It would be crazy to build some system that does not allow for some level of change.”

Rather than make any of those long-term decisions now, the Biden campaign has been rolling out a $25 million ad blitz and constructing a pair of organizing programs in Wisconsin and Arizona with two dozen staffers each. The early stages of this effort have focused on the Democratic base: In Milwaukee, they’re targeting Black voters; in Madison, young voters; and in Phoenix, Latino voters. But the idea is to expand beyond these states to the five other battlegrounds in the New Year, plugging into the political infrastructure built by Democrats who have recently won statewide there.

This has some liberals, alarmed by Biden’s unpopularity, nervous that the campaign is moving too slowly. Several vented their worries to Politico recently that state-level hiring is well behind the pace of the Trump 2020 and Obama 2012 campaigns. Biden aides think this criticism entirely misses the point: They’re deliberately avoiding Obama’s pattern, which proved to be expensive. Nevertheless, soon after Politico published the remarks, the campaign publicized its plans for new staff in Nevada, then Wisconsin. (It had just finalized hires in Michigan and was getting close on others in Pennsylvania.) That still wasn’t enough to fend off a new round of plaintive messages from allies begging Wilmington to accelerate hiring, nor did it assuage some swing-state organizers’ concerns that the campaign needs to do heavy lifting, soon, to explain to many voters what exactly Biden has done for them. “It’s a tale as old as time,” one of the organizers said to me. “Not a lot of people know about government programs.”

The Biden campaign has begun to use the DNC’s capacity to call and text selected groups across the country, engaging specific cohorts over local issues (like Republican efforts to de-emphasize racism and slavery in Florida schools) to build a base of volunteers and voters. In Wilmington, the belief is that doing this early is necessary because voters’ information-consumption habits have changed so much even since 2020. “Especially when you look at our core coalition of voters — young voters, African American voters, Latino voters — we have to be more surgical in our approach,” said Chávez Rodríguez.

Part of addressing this has meant identifying, recruiting, and cultivating community-focused messengers whom the Biden team can rely on to spread tailored messages to a variety of local and demographic groups. It has also been a technical process. The DNC circulates positive clips and images to volunteers who then share these with their personal networks and followings; they input information about reactions into the party’s centralized voter file using an app called Reach. This allows the campaign to learn about its voters and about what kinds of messages and delivery methods are working. That’s also a central goal of the initial advertising effort, which is aimed at a general-election audience and which the campaign is following up with detailed surveys to gauge its effectiveness.

The idea is to understand the electorate with new granularity by the time the outreach program broadens: Do 18-to-30-year-old Black voters around Philadelphia pay more attention to 30-second YouTube pre-roll ads or minute-long spots on Eagles broadcasts or door-knocks? Do older Latinos in Mecklenburg County watching the MLS playoffs in Spanish tune out when an ad about abortion comes on at halftime? Are Asian American immigrants in southern Nevada most likely to respond to a physical mail piece featuring Biden’s face or a radio ad full of warnings about Trump?

Spokesman Kevin Munoz (left) and Ducklo watch the first Republican debate. Photo: Brian Finke

Perhaps one reason the Biden campaign can seem unnervingly confident is that an overall plan, in some form, has been in place for longer than Biden has been president. Many foundational decisions were made late in Biden’s previous campaign by two senior aides: his then–campaign manager Jen O’Malley Dillon and the communications and political strategist Anita Dunn. By the transition, they’d outlined plans to house Biden’s political muscle and fundraising at the DNC, which could stockpile larger-than-ever sums on his behalf thanks to the Supreme Court’s laissez-faire approach to campaign financing. By last year’s elections, under O’Malley Dillon’s oversight, the DNC set up data, communications, and organizing presences in Washington and the central swing states, which were all home to important midterm races but were also sure to feature prominently in 2024.

Late last year, the question of who would be Biden’s campaign manager was a popular topic of gossip in Washington. The position was coveted but tricky. Democratic insiders widely assumed that the bulk of the reelection strategy would effectively be run from the White House, where O’Malley Dillon and Dunn now work, not campaign HQ — even more than usual for incumbent presidents, considering the way Biden relies on an especially tight inner circle. In addition to O’Malley Dillon and Dunn, that includes his fixer, Steve Ricchetti, and his adviser, mind reader, and image-maker, Mike Donilon.

In April, the campaign-manager job went to Chávez Rodríguez, who is 45 and grew up in California’s Central Valley in a family of union activists. She spent eight years in the Obama administration before joining Kamala Harris’s Senate office, then her 2020 campaign. When that effort flamed out, Chávez Rodríguez found work as a deputy to O’Malley Dillon and parlayed that into an influential role in Biden’s White House liaising with local and tribal governments. Biden got to know her; he’d put a bust of her grandfather, the legendary labor organizer Cesar Chavez, in the Oval Office when he moved in. She became a dedicated Bidenite and something of a true believer.

The first time I met with her in Wilmington this fall, I brought up Biden’s age. Chávez Rodríguez began what seemed like a well-practiced answer, highlighting his experience, character, and work in “so many communities throughout the country.” Then, appearing to surprise herself, she paused. She’d just been reminded, she said, of a recent conversation with a tribal chairman. She looked stricken: “What the chairman said to me is ‘Joe Biden has turned 400 years of hurt into 400 years of hope.’” To my amazement, a trickle of tears fell from her eyes onto the conference-room table.

Associates have heard Chávez Rodríguez refer to a small group — including O’Malley Dillon, Dunn, Ricchetti, and Donilon — as the campaign’s “White House board of directors.” The result of the extensive preplanning is that much of the campaign infrastructure was up and running early. When deputy campaign manager Rob Flaherty walked into his new job this fall from a role running the White House’s digital strategy, he was greeted by a staff of 55 that had been stationed at the DNC to assemble the building blocks of the campaign’s digital program for three years. “The benefit of time that we have, while the Republicans are sort of chasing their tails and trying to figure out who’s doing what, is the most beneficial part of this campaign,” said Fulks, who ran Senator Raphael Warnock’s reelection campaign against Herschel Walker. “The Joe Biden campaign wins or loses based on what we’re doing now, in this time frame, because we have this large runway to plot out our plan of attack and make sure that the foundational aspects of our organization — our engine — are running.”

Much of the public side of this approach has relied on spreading pro-Biden messaging through individual voter testimonials. There’s nothing particularly innovative about the form, but members of campaign leadership say the spots have proved in testing to be among the most effective so far. That includes the clips making Biden’s economic pitch. In the Phoenix media market, one ad features Bill Ruiz, a union carpenter, attributing a glut of jobs to Biden’s legislative agenda: “There’s a manufacturing boom, and it’s thanks to Joe Biden.” In Wisconsin, a cement mason named Kilah tells the camera over upbeat music, “I feel like Joe Biden understands people like me.” A long list of Biden accomplishments rolls by: “Wages are going up around here. The people that I deal with on a day-to-day basis, they’re getting a pay raise.”

Biden has taken to the road to make the case for Bidenomics, a conservative pejorative that he co-opted. These trips have a Platonic ideal: In August, one week before the first GOP presidential debate in Milwaukee, Biden visited a wind-turbine generator plant there to talk up his investments in manufacturing and clean energy. As he visited, the host company said it would hire 100 workers using money it got from his Inflation Reduction Act and would produce electric-vehicle charging stations; Siemens simultaneously said it would start building solar inverters in Kenosha County. The next morning, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel featured a huge picture of Biden on the front page under the word BIDENOMNICS. An adjacent headline informed locals, “Trump, 18 Allies Charged in Georgia.”

Despite this push, Biden still polls poorly on economic matters. To some supporters, it’s a sign his appeal is devoid of emotional resonance as he confronts a race unlikely to be fought over spending levels or tax incentives. “The Biden team needs a better word to explain his accomplishments than Bidenomics,” said John Morgan, an Orlando attorney who is a longtime party donor. “Whoever came up with that, they don’t have a place in the advertising world. The average reading level in America is seventh grade, and they’re thinking, What the fuck does that mean? ” It’s similarly unclear that Biden’s repeated trips are breaking through to the broader electorate as much as he would hope, despite the trillions in new spending he’s gotten passed for much-needed infrastructure and energy projects. “The bipartisan infrastructure bill, the CHIPS bill, those are monster game changers,” Phil Murphy, New Jersey’s Democratic governor and a prominent Biden booster, told me. “I’d be out there morning, noon, and night ribbon-cutting with shovels.”

There is no alignment over how exactly to address the malaise, not least because of the increasing suspicion that something is simply broken in the way public opinion usually tracks the economy. One NBC poll found that voters were twice as likely to be happy with the state of their own wallet than the overall economy. The prevailing theory is that even with inflation in check — that is, no longer rising sharply — Americans are still bitter that prices feel high when compared to the recent past. “One of my concerns about the Biden team is they seem to be full of these D.C. careerists who view the world in terms of passing legislation,” said a former Democratic governor who has known Biden for years. “For all his strengths, he is a guy who built a career around that. They talk about it like voters watch MSNBC every day.” Inside the Oval Office, Donilon and Biden have for months been discussing a crucial point in how to characterize the economy: Donilon has said Biden should remind voters how much it has improved, and Biden counters that he has to keep acknowledging that many Americans still feel financial pain. One group funded by LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, a Democratic power donor, recently began urging Biden to talk less about jobs and more about inflation. “Simply put, Biden’s jobs message isn’t getting the job done,” the group concluded in a memo it circulated widely. “The White House needs a clearer focus on prices.”

Sarah Longwell, an anti-Trump Republican strategist, told me about a focus group she ran over the summer. One voter supported Trump in 2016, switched to Biden in 2020, and was now for Trump again. “I’m going to turn off the TV. I’m not going to watch the news, and I’m just going to enjoy Trump’s economy,” he said. Biden cannot afford to let this attitude settle.

Late this past summer, not far from the White House, a Biden aide told me, “If we look back on this period with regret, it’s because we didn’t spend this time going after Trump.” Around that time, a pollster in the broader Biden orbit said, “You won’t really see the president’s numbers improve until it’s a clearer contrast.” For much of 2023, people close to Biden theorized that the right time would come sometime in the first quarter of 2024, but the ex-president’s domination of the GOP primary accelerated the timeline.

The Saturday after Thanksgiving, Trump opened an old Republican wound by floating another push to get rid of Obamacare. By Thursday, Biden was airing an ad in Atlanta, Detroit, Las Vegas, Philadelphia, Phoenix, and Raleigh featuring a pediatric nurse named Jody talking about health-care costs and Biden’s work lowering them. She warns, direct to the camera, “The idea that we could go back to the policies that help the rich get richer and left so many people behind? I don’t want to go back. Can’t go back.” It was a welcome step for those liberals who think Biden’s staff has tended to be too cautious. “The question with them is always, Do they aim a little low?” said a strategist not affiliated with the campaign. “Where’s the ambition?”

I talked to Chávez Rodríguez a few hours after the ad began airing. She told me Trump had been giving her campaign “a perfect opportunity by putting out these extreme policy proposals,” not just on health care — most Republicans had been happy to stop promising to repeal the Affordable Care Act, a repeated electoral loser — but also on immigration. (We were speaking before the administration considered backing new limits on asylum seekers in exchange for Ukraine war aid.) Fulks, who was also on the line, jumped in. “We’ve got to paint the picture of what’s at stake because that motivates people just as much as what the president has accomplished,” he said. “It’s both/and.”

Biden’s campaign has recently turned its attention to Trump more fully, seeking to make sure voters get the most ominous picture of Trump’s second-term agenda by reminding them of his extreme right-wing dreams, like reinstituting and expanding a travel ban on Muslims, rolling out mass deportations, and pardoning January 6 rioters. Seventy-three of the 78 emails the campaign sent reporters in November mentioned Trump or “MAGA Republicans.”

The approach is underpinned by a belief that Trump is no electoral juggernaut. It’s conventional wisdom that with every new indictment, Trump’s support grows. But while this is true among Republicans, it is not among independents. One Politico survey showed half of independents thought that Trump should be imprisoned if convicted in the Justice Department’s case about his attempts to overthrow the 2020 election. After the New York Times got a lot of attention in early November with a set of polls showing Biden behind in five of six crucial states, a far-less-noticed follow-up described another finding: There would be a decisive swing toward Biden in the battlegrounds if Trump were convicted. In the view of many in the Biden camp, Trump is losing altitude among the broader electorate. And the 2024 general election is almost certain to unfold in the shadow of a procession of embarrassing courtroom appearances.

Many Democrats think the party is better off focusing on pocketbook issues and policy than on Trump’s threat to American governance. Biden thinks he can sell both messages. Last year, over many Democrats’ objections that it would be a distraction, he delivered a major speech about democracy just ahead of the midterm elections. He still feels vindicated by the results of those elections, in which Democrats defied all expectations by holding the Senate and limiting Republican gains in the House, and believes Americans have yet to render their final political judgment on Trump over his insurrection. At the same time, Biden has shown enthusiasm for making a straightforward economic contrast with Trump, particularly in going after the ex-president’s tax cut for high earners and some Republicans’ interest in cutting Social Security and Medicare. When both candidates visited the Detroit area during the United Auto Workers strike, Biden’s campaign circulated an ad that began, “He says he stands with autoworkers. But as president, Donald Trump passed tax breaks for his rich friends while automakers shuttered their plants.” Over images of Trump on a golf course and Biden greeting workers, it concluded, “Manufacturing is coming back to Michigan because Joe Biden doesn’t just talk — he delivers.”

Beyond the economy and Trump’s lean into fascism — early this month, he declined to give Sean Hannity reassurance that he wouldn’t govern as a dictator — it’s abortion that’s most likely to play a fundamental role in shaping the electorate. Democrats have already made it the centerpiece of an argument about individual liberties. Almost immediately after the first GOP primary debate, the campaign pushed out an ad featuring Trump crowing about ending Roe and endorsing punishment for women who get abortions while Ron DeSantis talked about signing abortion bans. There is increasing confidence around Biden that the final electoral calculus could come down to a formulation as simple as “Democracy and Dobbs,” as Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff has reportedly suggested.

The grim lot of an incumbent seeking reelection is to confront the image of himself that has been absorbed in the American psyche. George W. Bush was dumb; Obama was an out-of-touch elitist; Trump was a corrupt lunatic. Biden is old. His age has been the single most commonly cited knock on him in poll after poll, and it’s now an active concern for fully three-quarters of voters.

Among those who interact with him regularly, it’s obvious the president is physically slower but still fit — he bikes often at his beach house — and mentally sharp. Some think that his softer, muddier diction is related to his stutter. Others still talk occasionally about how tired Biden got while running in 2019 and concede that other effects of his seniority have emerged. At a September reception in New York, Biden repeated lines about the white-supremacist riot in Charlottesville and the genesis of his last campaign almost verbatim, just a few minutes apart. He appears in front of cameras daily, but at some closed-door fundraisers, staffers have asked donors for questions in advance, then given them index cards off which to read those questions, so Biden can prepare. Other aides have monitored his walking routes since he tripped over a sandbag at a graduation ceremony last spring, and he has sometimes used a short staircase to enter and exit Air Force One near its underside rather than the familiar higher steps near the cockpit.

There’s no consensus among Biden’s supporters about how to address his age. (As they grouse about how much the issue has obscured the substantive achievements of his presidency, some aides have jokingly circulated fake news articles about Biden’s seniority, generated by ChatGPT, to make a point about how repetitive and unoriginal the media coverage has been.) A flurry of advice and research from officials and strategists across the party looking for a compelling way to address the problem has produced only ideas with marginal impact. One finding, for example, is that when Biden uses “fighting words” that imply vigor on Americans’ behalf — say, against big pharma or Dobbs — voters perk up.

In Wilmington, Flaherty has taken up the task of overseeing the effort to sell a positive, robust image of the ultimate analog candidate to a multi-platform audience — an expansion of his 2020 job. In the years since that election, he has thought plenty about what succeeded and what definitely didn’t. “For every dumb idea that didn’t work, there was a dumb idea that did work,” he told me, sitting in a glass-enclosed meeting room. Flaherty, a 32-year-old from outside Boston who’d joined Biden’s last campaign after Beto O’Rourke’s fizzled out, had led a team that tried getting Biden to host a regular podcast during the height of the pandemic: “The podcast did not work.” It trumpeted virtual meet and greets between Biden and supporters — “We tried to do virtual rope lines. Looking back, you’re like, That is so stupid.” But he saw opportunity in the way the campaign had designed interactivity (like chats and donation and reaction buttons) into Biden’s livestreamed speeches, which kept voters coming back.

At his aides’ prodding, Biden has embraced Dark Brandon — the glowing-eyes meme about his legislative superpowers. More prominently, the operation is finding a larger public role for Vice-President Harris and a range of surrogates whose emergence can’t come soon enough for Democrats worried about Biden’s own ability to connect on the stump. Also: more sustained relationships between the campaign and influencers who can disseminate talking points and videos to their followers. The idea is to create a volunteer pro-Biden army that feels bought into the effort and that can pitch the candidate using its own spin on top of the campaign’s slogans. It will work best if the community sees Biden as a character it knows and trusts — a process that has included sending small merch boxes to dedicated fans and making sure the campaign’s public-facing brand feels personalized. He pointed to a yard sign taped to a wall across the hallway. “What we’re doing at the end of the day is we’re selling a vibe; we’re selling a personality,” he said. The sign, which hung above the conference-room table where Fulks was still at his laptop, read TOGETHER WE CAN FINISH THE JOB: “That’s literally his handwriting. It’s like, How do we put a little bit of Joe Biden into everything? He is an empathetic, kind person, and people can see that. And then the other side of the personality is the Dark Brandon stuff — he’s fucking shit up.” The idea isn’t to make Biden, the octogenarian face of the political Establishment, go viral but rather to remind voters of all stripes why they like him. The best-performing video of the last campaign (according to its internal metrics) was a heartwarming clip of Biden giving a young Nevada boy named Shamar his flag lapel pin.

And yet Biden’s age has proved inescapable, and the closest thing to an agreed-upon way to address it is to detail what Biden has accomplished in office as part of an argument about his age begetting experience. “If I were of his age, I’d say, ‘Listen, this is what you get with this age. I’ve been around this place for 50 years!’” said Murphy. “‘As a senator, as a chair, as a VP, as a president, there’s nothing I haven’t seen.’ And I’d be aggressive on that front.
I wouldn’t be defensive.”

Biden knows the story line isn’t going anywhere. For now, he has been content to make light of the fact that, if reelected, he would be eight years older than any predecessor was at the beginning of a term. In the fall, he told backers in Manhattan, “I’ve never been more optimistic about our country’s future in the 800 years I’ve served.” Some of Biden’s advisers believe one more answer lies in reminding Americans of Trump’s own advanced age.

A return to the traditional campaign trail is almost certainly still months away. This follows the lead of Obama, who didn’t start campaigning for reelection until the spring of 2012. Yet it’s also a bet that Biden is unlikely to be the central story of the coming election. Trump’s totalitarian turn and legal travails are almost certain to dominate the news — mirroring how in 2020 Biden had an advantage in lying relatively low and modeling sanity.

Biden’s implicit wager is that, atypically for an incumbent, this race will not just be a referendum on him but also on his opponent. When I put this notion to a top Democratic power broker in Washington — someone who is sympathetic to Biden but hardly a cheerleader — he shrugged in agreement. “The preoccupation for the people who matter in this election — the people in that core group of states — will be whether they want to go back to having Trump as president,” he said. Sure, Biden is 81, but “what’s the alternative to Biden? If the alternative is Trump, maybe I prefer old to chaos or the undermining of the Republic.”

Still, Biden will have to outline for voters the reasons to support him — not just vote against Trump. One very senior Democrat in regular contact with the inner circle suggested that the president meet disenchanted members of his base where they are. Biden’s pitch can’t be “‘Joe Biden should be on Mount Rushmore.’ It should be realistic,” he said. “It’s ‘He’s done good things, and it’s him or the end of democracy.’”

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